There are many differences between the book of Devarim that we will soon start reading and the four other books of the Torah that come before it. But there is one story whose two versions are so dissimilar that it requires its own treatment – and that is the recounting of why Moshe was not allowed to cross the Jordan. In the first version – in this week’s parsha – the Torah clearly states that it is due to his lack of leadership while procuring water from a boulder.
Yet at the beginning of Devarim, Moshe tells us otherwise: In the middle of his recounting the spy incident, Moshe tells the Jewish people: “God got angry also with me for your sake, saying: ‘You too will not go [over the Jordan].’” While some commentators (Ramban, for example) suggest that Moshe was not trying to say that God got angry with him over the spy incident, as He did with the rest of the Jewish people, this doesn’t appear to be the straightforward reading of the text. More in line with its plain meaning are the commentators (such as Ohr haChaim and Malbim) who write that both the spy incident as well as the story with the boulder contributed to Moshe’s punishment. According to this opinion, however, we must discover what Moshe did wrong in the case of the spies and why Moshe himself identifies only this one reason for his punishment.
Netziv’s explanation of how the spy incident contributed to Moshe’s exclusion from the Land of Israel is among the most helpful. He writes that the process that ultimately led to Moshe’s failure at the boulder actually began with the spies. For Netziv, this process centered around the need for radical diminution of Divine involvement in the lives of the Jewish people in the desert. Moshe had wanted to maintain a strong Divine presence, as embodied by the unusual providence the Children of Israel had experienced since leaving Egypt. However, this required an extremely high level of moral and religious discipline on the part of the Jews, the absence of which would lead to immediate punishment.
After several related mishaps, it became clear that the Jews needed to forego the intensity of God’s immediate presence. Instead, they would need to accustom themselves to a more hidden level of Divine favor in conquering the land. The first actualization of this was the sending of the spies.
Netziv writes that starting with the spies’ mission, the desert experience was to be the training ground for adjusting to this new modality. Although Moshe accepted God’s decision to lower the intensity of His presence, dealing with the change would prove to be an existential struggle for the rest of his life. The scene at the boulder was only the final chapter: Moshe is given one last chance to overcome his inability to adjust to what the Jews needed from their leader, which Netziv tells us was for Moshe to definitively teach the Jews how to earn God’s favor in more conventional ways. This included a more communal and subtle type of prayer than the dramatic petitions of Moshe that they were used to. At the boulder, then, Moshe needed to motivate and teach the people to pray. But apparently, it was beyond him. At that point, Moshe demonstrated once and for all that he could not be the one to lead the Jews into the Promised Land.
Netziv’s approach allows us to reflect on the nature of Moshe’s leadership more broadly. Moshe was ideally suited to the role of an intermediary between God’s highly immanent presence on the one hand and a nation capable of standing at Mount Sinai on the other. But he was not so well suited to leadership in front of a hidden God Who would not perform any new miracles for most of the time the Jews would be in the desert. With God in the background, so to speak, Moshe was challenged by having to deal with the more mundane political and social grievances that became the daily fare of a more banal existence. That type of leadership would have to be taken by someone else.
According to Netziv, Moshe correctly understood his punishment. He failed to make the transition to the hidden mode of Divine providence, which was what God had decided the Jews now needed, even if it would come at the expense of their faithful leader. Their sins led them to need the spies and it would remain to be seen whether Moshe might somehow miraculously pull off working with the transition that the spies represented. But he did not. From that point on, his fate was sealed. We can now appreciate Moshe’s claim that he was punished “for the sake of [the Jewish people]” as a result of [the process that started with] the spy incident.