Pity poor Moses. All he ever did was leave his happy life as a good flock-tending son-in-law to return to the charnel house of Egypt in an ultimately successful effort to help free the enslaved people of Israel. As if that were not enough, he endures the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune while wandering around the wilderness with a group of people who seem totally unwilling to be grateful for their liberation. The Israelites complain about everything: the food, the water, the enemies around them, the plan God has for them and the land God eventually wants to bequeath to them. The newly freed slaves were even known to remark constantly about how much better things were back in bondage. And still Moses leads them, helping them along the way, correcting them when they stray, pushing them forward to the Promised Land.
But there is to be no ticker tape parade for Moses. No happy retirement sitting on a sun-dappled patio somewhere in Canaan chatting with all his old friends about the bad old days. He doesn’t get a gold watch, and he doesn’t get to write his memoirs. Instead, Moses gets to die on a mountaintop just outside the land that has been his destination since the darkest days in Egypt. In this week’s parasha, we are reminded of bitterly disappointing Moses finds this final lot of his to be.
“The Lord was wrathful with me on your account,” Moses tells the people this week, conveniently omitting the fact that it was his own abuse of the poor water-giving rock that led to God’s harsh decree excluding Moses from the Land. Though Moses reports that he pleaded to be allowed over the Jordan, God was, in this case at least, the Unmoved Mover. The punishment would stand; Moses would die without setting foot in the promised land.
And yet perhaps God was not entirely unyielding in the face of Moses’ entreaties. Although Moses is informed in no uncertain terms that he will not enter the Promised Land, he is given instructions to climb to the top of Mount Pisgah and gaze out over the land which would never be his home. At first blush, this could be viewed as an additional cruelty: forcing Moses to see the place he would never be allowed to live. But RASHI, quoting form an ancient midrashic collection called the Sifrei, views God’s instruction as a softening of the decree. “You asked me to show you the good Land,” the midrash has God saying to Moses, “But I am going to let you see the all the land.” In this telling, Moses will be granted one last miracle: a chance to view every inch of the land to which he finally led his people. Though Moses himself would never live in Canaan, he would at least be given the satisfaction of seeing it in its fullness.
As a Jewish educator, I am drawn to the midrashic understanding of Moses’ final moments. I imagine him on the mountain, looking over into Canaan, and perhaps even watching as the people he led for so long worked their way over the Jordan and into the Promised Land. I think working with kids is not entirely dissimilar from this: we do our best, we work hard, but in the end, we rarely know exactly how our work plays out in the lives of those whom we have taught. We may catch a glimpse of the future, we may be favored with a hint of the impact we have had, of the good we have done (or the bad!) but for the most part, we labor largely without knowledge of how our labors have succeeded. Moses is given the gift of knowing his success, he is granted a vision of the fruits of his labors. (One hopes God spared him the pain of knowing how much difficulty the future would hold for the people.)
Camp has such moments as well, moments when we are given a glimpse of the Jewish future we hope to create. Moments of spirited prayer, of passionate song, of deep and intense debate. We live for these moments, and we cherish them. When we see our campers and staff living out the values we are trying to imbue in them, we are, for a moment, like Moses, standing on the mountaintop, looking out over the land and the people. We see the future, if only for a moment.
And the future we see is bright.