Our sharpest memories, the ones that persist inside us in all their contours, edges, colors, and emotions, tend to recall the frustrations that we’ve never resolved or the events that defy explanation. They return us to moments in which everything that had felt solid and true, known and understood, suddenly became shaky and mysterious.
Moses had ample reason to trust that he understood God and His ways. Back in Exodus, after forty lofty days atop Mount Sinai, God had shared unsettling news. The Israelites had formed a new object of worship--a molten calf, and His plan was to obliterate the people and start fresh with Moses. But listening intently to God’s threat, Moses heard two words that told him he was being charged with a life-saving mission. God had prefaced his angry promise with, “Hanicha li,” “Let Me be!”
Moses could not have been trying to physically suppress God. So what was the intent of these two brusque words? The Midrash suggests they were meant to prod Moses toward prayer for Israel. Moses took the hint, accepted God’s invitation to pray, and his pleas for Israel’s salvation were answered.
Fast forward to the moment Moses recalls in Deuteronomy 3, when he makes a new appeal to God’s mercy, this time on his own behalf. Yes, he’s been told that he will never enter the Promised Land. But Moses is well-acquainted with God’s willingness to be persuaded and His capacity for acceptance. Why wouldn’t he, the ardent defender of Israel, assume that God would welcome the opportunity to grant his own heartfelt request?
But God responds unexpectedly. And His response is so jarring and so resolute that it traumatizes Moses and haunts him until the final days of his life. God doesn’t turn Moses down. God shuts him down. He interrupts his earnest presentation and ends it, saying, “Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!” It’s a devastating moment, in which everything Moses has known to be true about God’s nature does not help. God will not need to consider his plea, because He has told him not to pray.
Then, like a seven-year-old led through the aisles of a candy store and told to choose sweets for his younger siblings, Moses is instructed to climb to a summit and gaze at every corner of the land of Israel. He must prepare Joshua to settle this territory.
Moses offers no rebuttal, but his disappointment is mirrored by the landscape. He descends from the top of Pisgah into a valley, and this is where he must remain.
Sometimes, God doesn’t want to say “no,” but He doesn’t want to say “yes,” either.
Lori Linzer is an Instructor of Biblical Hebrew at Yeshiva College, Yeshiva University.
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