The leader of the Israelites is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women's Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
It was the moment for which Moses had prepared nearly all his life. Reared in Egyptian luxury, mothered by a princess, Moses might have lived out his 120 years in careless splendor, unconcerned with the fate of hordes of Israelite slaves who labored outside his palace. Yet, from the moment that Moses--still a young man--slays the Egyptian taskmaster, he chooses to cast his lot with the slaves.
For their sake and their God's--Moses spends forty years traversing the wilderness, leading a complaining and defiant people, interceding with an inscrutable and demanding Sovereign, and somehow transforming the despised and oppressed into witnesses of miracles and keepers of revelation. The work is almost finished. God and Moses have brought the people to the edge of the Promised Land, a place Moses will not reach. He will gaze upon it from the heights of Mount Nebo, but he will die before he enters it.
Why will Moses forgo the glorious completion of the task into which he has poured his very life? In parashat Vayelekh, Moses himself explains: "I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active" (31:2). Translated more literally, Moses says, "I can no longer go out and come in." Either way, the message seems clear: Moses is tired out; he is no longer feeling strong or vigorous. So he will remain on this side of the Jordan River, take a peek at the Promised Land, and then die a peaceful and contented death. It may seem strange that he is willing to miss this crowning achievement; but this appears to be his choice.
The Tragedy of It All
Except, of course, that he has not made such a choice. As the verse continues, Moses adds what might seem to be a secondary explanation, an afterthought--yet it contains some crucial information: "Moreover, God has said to me, 'You shall not go across yonder Jordan'" (31:2).
After all, isn't this the real reason that Moses will not enter the Promised Land? The Torah itself is quite clear that what Moses had done at a certain point prompted God to forbid him from crossing the Jordan. We read the unequivocal divine decree first in Numbers 20:12. After devoting his life to serving God's chosen nation, Moses shall not set foot in God's chosen land.
Moses' fate is painful, even tragic. Standing before the people he has so steadfastly led, he prepares not to shepherd them triumphantly into the Promised Land, but to install a new leader who will bring them to their destiny. It is, for Moses, a moment of enormous loss. He may speak as if he has a choice-as if he could lead the Israelites into the Land if only he were a little younger, a little stronger-but truly there is no choice at all. He may act as if he has freely decided to stay behind, but it is clear that the choice was made for him.