As we begin to read the Book of Devarim, we may wonder how Moshe actually looked back upon his life. It seems ironic that a man unsurpassed in so many ways may actually have seen himself as a failure. Yet that is certainly the impression one gets from reading through most of this book.
While Moshe speaks a great deal about his failure to cross the Jordan River, this only scratches the surface. Moshe’s frustration with his people’s inability to live up to his vision is palpable. As a result, he is convinced that things will get worse before they get better. Moshe had hoped to create a utopian society that would cross over with him to the Land of Israel, something we might call messianic times. Realizing that this is not what was going to happen – all the more so since he would not be there to lead – Moshe prepared the people for the catastrophic failures that would eventually almost inevitably follow. He speaks about the exile, torture and death that would have to occur as a result of their sins. Clearly, Moshe had hoped for better, but it was not to be.
Yet if Moshe may have seen himself as a failure, the ending of Devarim tells us that God saw it differently. We read that no other prophet would ever be his equal. Moreover, in the middle of Moshe’s death scene, the Torah reminds us that “Yehoshua son of Nun was filled with a spirit of wisdom because Moshe had rested his hands on him; the Children of Israel listened to him and acted as the Lord had commanded Moshe” (Devarim 34:9). In other words, Moshe successfully transmitted his project to a capable leader who would continue it. This is nothing to take for granted, even in the best of circumstances. But given the totally revolutionary nature of Moshe’s project, enabling a successor was nothing less than a tremendous feat.
Most interesting in this context is that those things we ourselves see as failures can actually be our greatest successes. And from that perspective, Moshe’s failure may have been his biggest success. What I mean is that Moshe made a choice to fail. He could have compromised on his vision and succeeded in convincing the Jewish people to adhere to the lower standard that they were able to achieve under Yehoshua. But then he would not have left us with his own towering vision.
Visions are much more than just plans meant to be followed. They are at least as much about an ideal as they are about a prescription for the future. As such, the success of a vision need not depend on whether or not it materializes. As an ideal, Moshe’s vision was meant to provide the answer when Jews are asked, “What do you really want?” If the Jews have rarely attempted to attain what Moshe let us know we should “really want,” it is far from a rejection of his ideal. Rather, it is an admission that we are not there yet.
But there is something else to Moshe’s genius: Setting a high standard pushes people to achieve more than they might have otherwise even attempted. The generation that went into the land with Yehoshua did not usher in messianic times. But they were nevertheless one of the most religiously successful generations in the entire Tanakh. While Yehoshua gets some of the credit for that, it was mostly because Moshe had set such a high bar. Moshe strove to do great things, which brought about a strong likelihood for failure. But that is only in terms of the original vision. For people like Moshe who strive to do great things usually accomplish very good things, whereas people willing to settle for less often accomplish nothing at all.