Commentary on Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30
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 40 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 Vayeilech, Moses himself explains: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active” (Deut. 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'” (Deut. 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.
Making Our Own Choices
Today, we like to make our own choices. We live in a time when almost every institution, every career, every level of leadership beckons us. We swell with pride and optimism as we see women serving in the highest echelons of government, in our universities and in our armed forces, as respected doctors, artists, scientists, teachers, philanthropists. We prepare ourselves and our daughters for lives in which every possibility is open to us. We can choose the life we want to live–except when we cannot.
Except when a 14-year-old girl falls prey to our society’s unspoken message to young women–” You are not pretty enough. You are not popular enough. You are not thin enough”-and spends her adolescence battling hateful voices in her head. She may tell you that she chose to watch her weight and eat very little. But in many ways, that choice has been made for her.
Except when a wife endures an abusive relationship, convinced that she is worthless and unable to make her own way in the world. When her husband begins to threaten their children, she finally gathers her courage and flees. Without money or marketable skills, she earns only substandard wages. She may tell you that she chose to go it alone, to work for low pay because she needs a job, to do without health care for herself so that she could provide for her family. But in many ways, that choice has been made for her.
Except when a woman devotes countless eighty hour workweeks to her career and so is only a year or two away from a prestigious promotion when she and her spouse have a baby. When she returns to the office, her appeals for flexible hours, the chance occasionally to work from home, even a private place to express breast milk, are refused. She may tell you that she chose to quit her job and not work in an unsupportive environment, chose the rewards of at-home motherhood over the rewards of professional life. But in many ways, that choice has been made for her.
We find women all around us submitting to pressures and expectations that undercut our right to choose the life we want to live. And yet, the pressures and the expectations that we encounter are not God’s will. Whereas Moses’ ability to choose his destiny ended when God made known the heavenly decree, our choices should not-must not-be bound by earthly decrees that dishonor and punish women, that teach young girls they are not good enough, that refuse to assist a persecuted victim in need, that force a mother to decide between her career and her child. Acknowledging the injustice of the choices women often face is surely the first step toward changing the pattern.
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).
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.