In this week’s portion Moshe implores God for permission to enter Israel. In the end, the request is denied. Even as Moshe uses every possible argument, God declares He would never ever step foot in the Holy Land.
Not only is Moshe destined never to come to Israel, even his remains will not be buried there. This in glaring contrast to Yosef. Although Yosef died in Egypt, when the Jews left that country they carried Yosef’s bones for burial in Israel.
Why is Yosef buried in Israel while Moshe is not? The Midrash takes up this question and responds: Yosef while in Egypt was always identified as a Jew. Note that when the butler suggests to Pharaoh that Yosef could interpret his dreams, he refers to Yosef as the na’ar ivri – the Hebrew lad. Having been identified as a Jew, Yosef was deemed worthy for burial in Israel.
Moshe on the other hand was not identified as a Jew. In fact, Yitro’s daughters tell their father that an ish Mitzri – an Egyptian man – saved them from the shepherds who were harassing them. Not being identified as a Jew, Moshe is denied burial in the Holy Land.
This Midrash brings to mind the days I spent visiting Israeli soldiers during the 1982 Lebanon War. One soldier, Shimon ben Tzion from Kiryat Arba, was burned from head to toe. Every day when visiting, I’d ask him to share a dvar Torah with me. Finally, on my last day there, he offered me the Midrash cited above.
Looking into my eyes between his bandages, he asked: “Why should Moshe have been punished for telling the truth? Unlike Yosef who was born in Israel and, therefore, was identified as a Hebrew, Moshe was born in Egypt. Thus, Moshe being identified as an Egyptian should not cast poor light upon him.”
Turning himself even more to me, Shimon quoted Rav Kook of blessed memory, who said that no matter where a Jew is born, he is born in Israel. This was Moshe’s mistake. Although born in Egypt, he was existentially born in Israel.
Years later our son Dov interviewed Avital Sharansky for an elementary school class report. Avital spent her Sabbath with our family during the days when she was advocating on behalf of her imprisoned husband, Natan. Dov asked Avital, “Where were you born?” Avital answered, “Israel.” My young Dov was flabbergasted. “But you’re from Russia, everyone knows that.” Avital answered, “Every Jew, no matter where that Jew was born, was born in Israel. And every Jew, no matter where that Jew is, is in Israel.”
An important message to consider at this time when so many of our people fear traveling to the Holy Land. It reminds us of our challenge to remain linked with Israel, our homeland, especially during these difficult times.
About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.
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