Hear O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan… (Deut. 9:1)
In parsha Eikev, Moses addresses the Children of Israel before they enter the Promised Land. He exhorts them to follow God’s laws in the land, and promises that if they do so, they will prosper.
Moses says “YOU are about to cross” rather than “WE are about to cross” because God already told him that he wouldn’t enter the land. This startling decree occurs after the Israelites complain of thirst in the wilderness of Kadesh. God tells Moses to “take the staff and gather the people, you and Aaron your brother. You shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its water.” Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes it – twice – with his staff to bring forth water. God then tells him “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land I have given them.” (Num. 20:12).
What is Moses’s mistake that warrants such a harsh consequence? Rashi explains that extracting water by speaking would be a greater miracle; by striking instead Moses lessens God’s miracle. Another perspective is from Maimonides, who says that Moses’ mistake is losing his temper and speaking to the people with harsh words: “Listen you troublemakers!”
Despite the decree, Moses repeatedly pleads with God to let him enter the land. God refuses and tells him to stop asking. Moses has done all he can, but there is one last option to avert the decree: the Israelites can pray on his behalf. Being the most humble man who ever lived (Num. 12:3) Moses does not ask them directly to pray for him, instead communicating his desire in a subtle way. The Ohr Hachaim explains that when Moses says “Hear Israel” it’s a signal that what he is about to say is very important. He then tells the people “YOU are crossing over” reminding them that he is not going with them. However, they do not read between the lines to discern his true intentions, and they fail to pray for him.
Would the Israelites’ prayers have reversed the decree and allowed Moses to enter the Promised Land? Perhaps. But the lesson for all of us is to listen carefully to what others are saying, whether they express their needs explicitly or in a more subtle way. Sometimes people are too embarrassed to ask for help directly, but if we are sensitive listeners, we may perceive a deeper message and a way to help.
Image: “Crossing the River Jordan” by Benjamin West, 1800