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From Rav Shai: Why Couldn't Moses Enter the Promised Land?

04/08/2024 01:22:45 PM



There is a common misconception that the reason why Moses was not allowed over the Jordan River into the Promised Land involved hitting a rock with his staff for water.

The Torah does use the rock incident as the occasion to inform Moses that he won’t make it into the Promised Land, but the Torah does not actually say that’s the reason why Moses can’t lead the Israelites there. As so often happens, it is only the crash of current events that has allowed me to understand the Torah’s deep intention.

There is one other great figure of the Bible who was unable to complete his vision and mission, King David. He was the founder of the messianic line who purchased the land for the Temple in Jerusalem, but was not allowed to build the Temple. Why? Here the Bible is explicit: He spilled too much blood. He fought too many wars (I Chron. 22:8).

But he fought those wars with God’s blessing for the safety and security of Israel. Why would he be punished for that?

Our rabbinic commentators admit what the Torah text omits: King David spilled innocent blood, blood that was unnecessary to spill to secure the victories necessary for Israel to be secure in its land (RaDaK and Malbim). He founded the messianic line, but you can’t build a Temple for God by shedding innocent blood.

Could the TaNaKH have revealed about King David what it was unwilling to disclose about Moses? Consider the final plague: God tells Moses that every first born in Egypt will be killed. Unlike Abraham, Moses does not argue with God that it would be unjust to murder the innocents with the guilty. (I owe this insight to Rabbi David Seidenberg.) The Rabbis made a big deal comparing Abraham, who argued for justice in Sodom and Gomorrah, with Noah, who just, sheepishly, complied. God said all the first born in Egypt were to be slain, and Moses complied, without pushing back, at all.

Our Rabbis were bothered by Moses’ docile compliance, so the midrash assures us that all the firstborns were guilty of rejoicing in the pain and distress of the Israelites. They got what was coming to them. They weren’t innocent! That’s what the midrash says. Our Rabbinic sages had a stake in preserving a sense of divine justice. They couldn’t accept such collateral damage as the price for redeeming the Israelites from bondage.

Why didn’t Moses make it into the promised land? Because like King David, Moses had innocent blood on his hands. He could have challenged God about the need to kill every firstborn. He could have asked if all that bloodshed was necessary to redeem Israel.

Too many Israelites died in bondage, and too many Egyptians died securing our freedom. Moses is remembered as our redeemer—although, curiously, not in the Haggadah where he is not even mentioned. But Moses can’t lead us across the river into the Promised Land because the river flows, in part, with the blood of innocent Egyptians.

At this year’s Pesach seder, we should use all our fingers, not just our pinkies, to dip into the red and diminish our joy. God willing, like the Israelites, we will prevail, but our joy will be diminished.

This essay was published with many others in the Conservative Movement’s Passover reader: Passover Reader 5784: Not A Haggadah on The Digital Home for Conservative Judaism (

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784