I have met many people surprised by the seeming harshness of God’s decree against Moshe, repeated at the end of Parshat Haazinu. Malbim (32:32) provides an interesting explanation in line with the discussion in Yoma 85b-86a as to what different sins require in order to be atoned. At the top of the ladder is the sin of Chilul HaShem, profaning God’s name – and accordingly, this sin can only be wiped away with a person’s death. Malbim claims that Moshe’s failure to carry out his mission at the boulder, was a desecration of the name, and so would only be completely forgiven with his death.
While Malbim’s comments justifies the need for Moshe to die, it does not explain why he had to die when he did and why he could not even momentarily cross over into the Land of Israel. These questions are strengthened by the Sifrei’s (at the end of Haazinu) suggestion of an even more innocuous alternative to the Divine decree. There, the rabbis have Moshe asking to be taken across the Jordan – after he dies. Would anyone have questioned the seriousness of God’s decree, if it had been understood to only refer to his lifetime? After all, the most convincing explanation about Moshe’s dying outside the land – one that has gained in popularity over the last few decades – is Netziv’s contention that Moshe simply wasn’t the man for the job of settling the Israelites into the physical experience of the Land. So why was it so important to deny Moshe this apparently slight request? (Even if Moshe didn’t actually make the request, the Midrash is formalizing an option that should have been on the table, which means that God certainly knew of it.)
The rabbis (Sotah 14a) suggest that there was a need for him to be buried near the site of Baal Peor, so that he could atone for it – something which may be hinted to by the text in Devarim 34:6. Yet given the premium that is placed on Yaakov and Yosef (and Theodore Herzl, for that matter) being buried in the Land of Israel, it would seem strange that – of all people – the greatest Jew to have ever lived would have to be buried elsewhere. Was there really no other way to atone for this sin? Rather, I think the rabbis who made this observation assumed that Moshe could not be buried in the Land for other reasons. And once that was the case, it would make sense for him to be buried in a place where his spiritual powers would benefit the Jews.
So even after Malbim and the discussion in Sotah, we are still left with our questions. We could retreat to the position that, yes, not crossing over even after he died was, in fact, the nature of the decree, and the biggest proof is that Aharon’s bones were not taken to Israel either. But I think there may be something else going on here. In my volume on Devarim, I argued that everything about Moshe’s death was emblematic of his life as well: Moshe lived apart from others, and so both his burial and burial place were apart from others. Likewise Moshe had carried a dual identity throughout his life: he was a leader of Israel, but he was also a leader of mankind more generally. His spiritual leadership had started with the Egyptians, moved to Midian and continued to have a multi-national flavor even when he returned to his native people. As I have argued in several places, this was because the Torah was not only meant to provide inspiration and guidance for the Jews; it was do so in a different way for the rest of mankind as well.
And not only is it obvious that the Torah has had an extremely positive role on the rest of mankind, it appears that Moshe, himself, has maintained a special place in the hearts of many non-Jews as well. At least when it comes to the United States, famed author Bruce Feiler suggests that Moshe is as American as apple pie. Nor is this something completely unique to America. Though Feiler refers to Moshe as America’s prophet, it would not be a complete exaggeration to refer to him as the world’s prophet.
Hence it seems important for the Torah’s central prophet to have been someone with whom gentiles could identify. And being buried outside of Israel may well have been part of that. So while most Jewish leaders should be buried in the land of Israel, Moshe could only be buried next to it. For to be buried over the border would have been an abdication of his role as a universal leader. If out of his love for his people and their land, Moshe might have been prepared to do that, God was not.