Parashat Va’ethanan: Swimming to our dreams

God could have been clearer in his original message to Moses, but perhaps God intended this ambiguity.

 JORDAN RIVER, 1860-1955.  (photo credit: PICRYL)
JORDAN RIVER, 1860-1955.
(photo credit: PICRYL)

This week’s parasha, Va’ethanan, opens with a plea. Moses appeals to God to let him enter the Promised Land along with the Children of Israel.

Earlier, after the incident when Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it, God had decreed that he and Aaron would not enter the Promised Land: “But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them’” (Num 20:12).

Aaron died on Mount Hur (Num 20:29) shortly after the incident at the Waters of Meribah, and as our parasha opens, Moses and the Israelites were camped just across from the Promised Land near the Jordan River. 

We read: “I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying, ‘O Lord, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.’ But the Lord was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan’” (Deut 3:23-28).

The root of the parasha: Showing favor, being gracious

The three-letter root of va’ethanan (“I pleaded”) is hanan, meaning “to show favor, to be gracious toward another.” It is related to the tachanun (“supplication”) prayers said during weekday morning and afternoon services. Traditionally, it is recited sitting with lowered head and face pressed into a bent forearm – a sign of being overwhelmed by the combination of confession and request before God. That posture, both literally and figuratively, stands in contrast to Moses. 

Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)
Reading a torah scroll (credit: INGIMAGE)

Philosopher and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz – brother of the great Torah commentator Nechama Leibowitz – points out that: “Moses is not aware of the fact that he has sinned, but regards the decree against him as not being justified. When he pleads to God here, he does not ask for forgiveness of his sin, but for the annulment of the decree. And this is depicted in a most dramatic form in many midrashim, which deal with the great debate between Moses and God regarding God’s decree against him, and his demand that the decree – one which he regards as an injustice toward him – be annulled, and God’s refusal to accede to him” (excerpted from Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah).

Having said that, is there a midrashic approach that can create a different outcome? For that, we turn to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy.

“And Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: ‘I am now 120 years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the Lord has said to me: ‘You shall not go across this Jordan’” (Deut. 31:1-2).

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky asks, “Where did he go?” 

Kamenetsky elaborates, “If he, in fact, was telling the people that he can no longer come and go, then why open the portion with the words ‘and Moshe went’? If not contradictory, they are superfluous.” 

In a discussion of this question, Adam Koffman, director of, suggested that “He snuck across the Jordan River to get a peek into the Promised Land.” 

What a beautiful thought. 

Perhaps after crossing the Jordan by himself, Moses sat awhile in the shade of huge willow trees along the riverbank. I picture him resting peacefully, quiet, and satisfied. Maybe he strolled to the oasis of Jericho and plucked some delicious sweet dates from one of her palm trees before returning to the river bank to recline a little longer, savoring the moment. A warm wind blew about, but the soft branches of the willow tree cooled the air. The river gurgled at his feet.

Could this have happened?

We know from the Book of Numbers (20:12) that God specifically told Moses, after he hit the rock at Meribah, that he could not lead the children of Israel into the Promised Land. Only a year after that incident, was it likely that Moses would disobey God again? Consider that when Moses first disobeyed God by striking the rock, he did so in frustration and anger. His furor at the people had gotten the best of him. But this time, his action would be cold and calculated.

Let’s take a closer look at just what God said to Moses about entering the Land of Israel.

Immediately after Moses struck the rock, God told him, “You shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12). 

A year later, on the last day of Moses’s life, when he and the children of Israel were camped on the East Bank of the Jordan River, God told Moses three times that he was not to enter the land. 

Examining these three messages, we note important differences and nuances. The first time, Moses quoted God as saying, “You are not to cross over this Jordan River” (Deut. 31:2). God then reiterated the message with a different emphasis: “You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it” (Deut. 32:52). Finally, later that same day, God restates, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I will assign it to your offspring. I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there” (Deut. 34:4).

A close examination of these texts reveals a shift in God’s message. First, he told Moses that he could not lead the people into the land (Num. 20:12). But God said nothing about whether Moses could cross the Jordan by himself. So we can imagine that is exactly what he did early in the morning on the last day of his life, “And Moses went” (Deut. 31:1).

How can we say this? Because in the very next line (Deut. 31:2), God refined his words and told Moses specifically not to cross the Jordan River. In essence, God was saying, “Moses, you must not repeat what you just did.”

So we can picture Moses at the beginning of the last day of his life. The greatest of prophets, he knew his end was near. Standing on the east shore of the Jordan River, he gazed at the opposite side and recalled God’s command that he was not to lead the Israelites across the river. Longing to be able to cross over to the other side, he thought back to what God had said to him.

God only spoke of not leading the people across the river, but nothing about Moses crossing the river by himself. With that, Moses swam across the Jordan River. Only when Moses returned, God told him not to cross the river (Deut. 31:2).

Later in the day, God further honed his message, telling Moses to not even approach the river bank. He must remain “at a distance” (Deut. 32:52) so he would not be tempted to go back across the river.

God could have been clearer in his original message to Moses, but perhaps God intended this ambiguity, which left room both for Moses to cross the river and for us to discover a way to imagine Moses crossing the river. 

Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk teaches, “Without imagination, there is no hope.” And in the end, in our imagination, our image of Moses crossing the Jordan is an image of hope, that our own dreams may be fulfilled even in our last days. ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.