Why Did Moshe Desire to Enter the Land?

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Based on a sicha by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l


Adapted by Lavi Bigman

Translated by Kaeren Fish



So said Moshe: [Bnei] Yisrael were commanded concerning many mitzvot that can be fulfilled only in Eretz Yisrael. Let me enter the land so that they can all be fulfilled by me. (Sota 14a)


Which mitzvot did Moshe wish to fulfill upon entry into the land? The conventional understanding is that he was referring to the "commandments dependent upon the land" – terumot and ma'asrot, challa, etc. However, upon further consideration, it seems that Moshe might have been referring to other mitzvot, not those traditionally defined as falling into the category of those "dependent on the land" in the narrow sense of the term.


In Parashat Shoftim we read:


When you come to the land which the Lord your God has given to you and to take possession of it and dwell in it, and you shall say, "Let me appoint a king over me like all the nations that are round about me," then you may appoint a king over yourself, whom the Lord your God shall choose… (Devarim 17:14)


One of the commandments that may be fulfilled in the land is that of appointing a king. The gemara in Sanhedrin (20b), followed by the Rambam in Hilkhot Melakhim (1:1), mentions three mitzvot that do not belong to the conventional category of "mitzvot dependent upon the land" and yet can be performed only upon entry into the land: appointing a king, wiping out Amalek, and building the Temple.


What is common to these three commandments is that they are not obligatory on every individual in his private capacity, but rather are communal requirements. These three commandments pertain to the root of the identity of Kenesset Yisrael – and specifically in Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel.


We may assume that these commandments were included among those that Moshe wished to fulfill, no less than separating terumot and ma'asrot. His prayer to enter the Land was more than an expression of his desire to carry out these specific Divine commands; it was a longing for a time when he could complete the mission upon which he had embarked in Egypt and which he had pursued ever since.


What was the mission, the objective, the aim during those forty years? In a moment of anger in the desert, Moshe had asked God a rhetorical question: "Did I then conceive this nation; did I give birth to it?" (Bamidbar 11:12). God answered him by advising him on how to continue developing new leadership and molding the nation. It seems that God is telling Moshe that he did, indeed, conceive this nation; he brought it into existence, and he had borne it and would continue to bear it, just as a wet-nurse carries an infant. Moshe is depicted as shaping the image of the nation.


Moshe emerges as a spiritual leader responsible for teaching Torah to the nation; but he is even more than this. Chazal consider him to be a king, based, according to the Rambam, on the verse, "And there was a king in Yeshurun" (Devarim 33:5).


If Moshe's mission in the wilderness was that of a king, then it is understandable that reaching the Promised Land was his life's dream. It was more than a desire to be in Eretz Yisrael for the sake of its sanctity and unique qualities. Only in Eretz Yisrael would his mission be complete; only there could the quality of Kenesset Yisrael find its fullest expression. There was a need for someone to lead and direct this process. Moshe wanted personally to complete the task that he had undertaken in Egypt, and to which he had devoted such efforts and energy. The establishment of a system of government is a commandment in its own right, but it is also a means to further many other mitzvot.


However, as we know, there can be no king without a nation. Part of the mitzva of appointing a king is building up the nation. Thus, there is a reciprocal relationship between the national infrastructure and the king. When the nation itself is developed, it will in turn have a worthy leader who will develop leadership capable of molding the nation.


The connection between Moshe and Eretz Yisrael extends even beyond this dimension. In Parashat Kedoshim, the formula "When you come to the land" takes a different direction:


When you come to the land and will have planted ('u-netatem') all types of trees for food, you shall consider their fruit forbidden (orla); three years shall it be forbidden to you, it shall not be eaten. (Vayikra 19:23)    


The letter vav in the word "u-netatem" has a dual function.  On the one hand, it is part of the conditional, "When you come…" – if and when you come to the land and you plant fruit-bearing trees, the following is what you must do with the fruit. On the other hand, the vav may not be part of a condition, but rather a commandment in its own right: Plant fruit-trees! Surprisingly, this interpretation is supported by a midrash that views planting as a command – and not just a general requirement, but an act of Divine service of the highest level:


Rabbi Yitzchak, son of Rabbi Simon, said: "You shall follow after the Lord your God" (Devarim 13:5) – is it then possible for mortals to follow the Holy One, blessed be He, concerning Whom it is written, "Your way is in the sea, and Your path in many waters" (Tehillim 77:20)? And you say, "You shall follow God"?!

"And you shall cleave to Him" (Devarim 13:5) – is it then possible for a mortal to ascend to the heavens and to cleave to the Divine Presence, concerning Whom it is written, "For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Devarim 4:24)?!

[How then are we to understand this idea of imitating God?] At the very beginning of the world's creation, the Holy One started by occupying Himself with planting, as it is written, "And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden" (Bereishit 2:8). So, too, when you enter the land, you must first occupy yourselves with planting. Thus, it is written, "When you come to the land and plant all types of fruit trees…" (Vayikra Rabba 25:3)


In other places as well, Chazal teach that we should imitate God, sometimes in terms of moral traits, and other times in terms of actions. Here, however, we find a unique answer about how to go about following God's example: planting trees. Of all the many commandments given to Bnei Yisrael, this one, although representing a seemingly physical act, is said to epitomize "walking in God's ways."


We may propose that there is a special connection between planting trees and observing the commandment of oral, on the one hand, and the entry into the land, on the other. In contrast to the other commandments that are dependent upon the land, orla is observed even outside of Eretz Yisrael. In order to fulfill this commandment, it is not necessary to enter the land. The gemara admittedly discusses the degree of difference between orla as practiced outside of the land and the orla of Eretz Yisrael, but the difference between the two types of planting goes beyond the halakhic question.


The "planting" with which God occupied Himself was not the mere planting of trees; it was the very creation of the world, the infrastructure for all that would follow. Thus, upon entering Eretz Yisrael, we are also commanded to plant trees and to cultivate the land – not only in relation to the mitzvot of orla and reva'i, but to establish the infrastructure for national existence. If God builds an entire world on the foundation of planting trees, then we too are required to plant in Eretz Yisrael so that there will be a healthy economy and a basis for communal life.


Moshe's wish to enter Eretz Yisrael certainly included the desire to fulfill the commandments dependent upon the land. The Rishonim cite this gemara in Sota as a source for the idea that a person should seek to fulfill commandments even when he could legitimately evade doing so. However, there is a level beyond this: Moshe wanted going to build a national existence with a spiritual foundation. "See, I have taught you statutes and judgments, as the Lord my God has commanded me" (Devarim 4:5). This verse speaks not only about the laws that Moshe taught to Am Yisrael, but also about his inculcating broader and more general Torah values and knowledge. The development of a nation must be based on these values.


We are not in the same situation as Moshe. Moshe needed to sanctify the land and the nation, to connect these sanctities and integrate them into an overarching framework of Divine service. Our task was easier; our generation arrived in a land that was already sanctified. Even if one a technical level we were to accept the view of the Ba'al ha-Terumot that the "second sanctification" did not last into the present, Kenesset Yisrael nevertheless perceived this sanctity as extending into the present and beyond.


Nevertheless, until 1948, practical expressions of this sanctity were lacking. There was no national independence, no system or mechanism of government. And lest we be misled in this regard, the question is not one of appointing a king. Even those who do not regard the appointment of a king as an obligation would certainly agree that there is an obligation to establish some system of government; we cannot permit a situation of "every person doing what is right in his own eyes." This task awaited us, and our forefathers, and our forefather's forefathers.


In our time, we have faced a dual task. On the one hand, the State of Israel is spiritually deficient and lacks leadership; our task is to try to improve it.  On the other hand, our task is also to protect and preserve that which does exist. In the parashot of Acharei-Mot and Kedoshim, we find repeated mention of "shemira" (maintenance, keeping, guarding): "You shall guard My statutes" (Vayikra 18:5, 18:26, 18:30, 19:37, 20:8, 20:22, etc.). The "guarding" here concerns, inter alia, the mitzvot of terumot and ma'asrot (whether on the level of "de-oraita" or "de-rabbanan"). However, it would seem that this idea of preservation or maintenance extends not only to one specific mitzva or another, but also teaches of the importance of shemira itself, as we learn in Parashat Korach:


God said to Aharon: You and your sons and your father's house with you shall bear the iniquity of the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear the iniquity of your priesthood… And they shall keep your charge (ve-shameru mishmartekha), and the charge of the Tent, only they shall not approach the vessels of the sanctuary and the altar, so that neither they nor you shall die. And they shall accompany you and keep the charge (ve-shameru et mishmeret) of the Tent of Meeting, for all the service of the tent; and a stranger shall not approach you. And you shall keep the charge of the sanctuary, and the charge of the altar, so that there shall be no more wrath upon Bnei Yisrael… And you and your sons with you shall guard your priesthood… (Bamidbar 18:1-7)


Here, the command – first and foremost to the kohanim, but also to Bnei Yisrael – is that the kohen should guard his status and office. What must be guarded is the system of sanctity, which projects the vision of Kenesset Yisrael. But this cannot be preserved in a passive way.  If the priesthood is to be preserved, it is necessary that "ve-kidashto, you shall sanctify him;" it must be developed and nurtured.


If we wish to preserve the sanctity of the nation and of the Land, we cannot suffice with sitting on the sidelines. "When you come to the land" – whenever it is that you come, you must roll up your sleeves, get to work, concern yourself with sanctity and leadership, plant trees, and take care that those trees do not become "asherot."


This is the spirit in which a Jew, following the example of Moshe, dreams the vision and desires to fulfill mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael – including that of appointing a king. We who dwell in the beit midrash and in Eretz Yisrael, out of a cleaving to Torah and to that which makes possible the realization of Kenesset Yisrael’s destiny, are confronted with the mission of bringing into existence a world of Divine service. This is the Torah, the land, and the State.



(This sicha was delivered on Yom Ha-Atzmaut 5768 [2008].)