Professor Herman Branover is a Russian-Israeli physicist and Jewish educator, known in the scientific community as the leading pioneer in the field of magneto­hydrodynamics.

Over the years, Branover undertook to translate some of the fundamental works of Judaism into Russian.

At one point in his extensive publishing career he decided to translate a classic introduction to Judaism by the famed novelist Herman Wouk, titled This Is My G‑d.

Before doing so, he had occasion to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a private audience. One of the things he brought up was his plan to have the book translated into Russian. He presented the Rebbe with an English copy of the book, whose cover looks like this:

The Rebbe chuckled and asked: “This is my G‑d, Herman Wouk?” He then continued seriously: “With Mr. Wouk’s permission, I would encourage you to change the title. There is a possibility, however remote, that a Russian Jew ignorant of his or her religion might mistake the author for the subject of the book.”1

Access Denied

It’s not a comfortable thing to see a beloved figure of authority begging for something. It’s even harder to witness their rejection. Yet that’s what we are witness to towards the end of the Five Books of Moses, when Moses implores G‑d to allow him entry into the Holy Land and his request is denied.

Moses’ devastation upon hearing his fate is well documented in the Midrash.2

The question has been asked a thousand times.

Why is Moses denied entry into the Holy Land? Why does G‑d reject the only personal request of Moses to be recorded in the Bible?3

With devotion, he’d led the Israelites on their bumpy roller-coaster ride into nationhood. He’d been to hell and back with them, from Egypt to Sinai, and yet he wouldn’t be there to witness their triumph upon reaching the end of the road.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Some background to the story:

After traveling for forty years in the wilderness, the people of Israel arrived in Kadesh in the Zin Desert, on the border of the Holy Land. Upon arrival, the people discovered that there was no water in Kadesh, and they complained to Moses. “If only we had died,” they vented, “when our brethren died before G‑d! Why have you brought the congregation of G‑d to this desert, to die there, we and our cattle? Why have you taken us out of Egypt—to bring us to this evil place?”

Moses called on G‑d, who instructed him to “take the staff, and gather the people, you and Aaron your brother. You shall speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its water.” When all were assembled before the rock, Moses addressed them: “Listen, rebellious ones! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed forth, and the people and their cattle drank.

Whereupon G‑d said to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land I have given them.”

Presented are the hard facts. Their interpretation is less straightforward. What exactly was Moses’ crime? Why did G‑d come down so hard on His loyal servant for committing what seems to be a minor offense?

The commentaries offer a wide range of answers. We’ll focus on one of them.

Nachmanides4 explains that Moses erred in saying to the people, “Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?”—words that can be seen to imply that extracting water from a rock is something that Moses does, rather than G‑d.

Now obviously that isn’t what Moses believed—he was, after all, G‑d’s most loyal servant, and the greatest prophet to have ever lived. But that doesn’t mean that his listeners wouldn’t misunderstand his words.

You see, here’s the thing with Moses. Moses possessed two qualities that when brought together produced an unhelpful side effect. He was a man of unequivocal truth, and paradoxically he saw the world’s inhabitants from an ideal place—as they should be, but not necessarily as they were. As such, at times he had a hard time conceiving of and anticipating human weaknesses and limitations.

For example, in our instance he simply didn’t imagine the possibility that his words might be understood as a statement that he operated independent of G‑d.

Additionally, because of his supreme integrity, he cared more about what needed to be said than about how his words might be taken. From Moses’ perspective, the moment a leader begins to think about how his words are received by the people he leads, he has narrowed the gap between his thought process and theirs, and in doing so has compromised that which makes him worthy to lead—namely, the ability to see things from a higher and more objective place than the average man.

[In a sense, then, Aaron was the greatest complement and counterbalance to Moses. First of all, he understood human weakness, and worked to help people in their current flawed state. Second, and perhaps resultantly, he embodied the attribute of peace, which is often achievable only through compromise.]

Understanding the nature of Moses’ purist perspective, and his corollary innocence regarding the hazards of perception, sheds light on G‑d’s decision to keep Moses from leading the people into the Promised Land.

A Shift of Focus

Jewish mysticism sees the journey from Sinai to Canaan not just as a change in scenery, but as a shift of mission and mentality.

The lifestyle of the Israelites in the desert was spiritual in nature. Its purpose was to fortify the spiritual vitality and constitution of this nascent nation tasked with being a light unto the nations. All of their physical needs were provided for by G‑d, to free them of distractions from study and prayer. Could there be a more idyllic state of existence than that?

Canaan would be different, though. There would be a need to fight wars, work the land and engage in commerce. The party would be over.

The Israelites would enter the “real world” in all its ugliness. Accordingly, they needed a leader who had come to terms with a flawed world, who would be able to appreciate the frailties of human nature. This perspective would enable him to deal with an imperfect people about to face greater challenges than ever, and it would help him help his people transition into their new reality and role.

Perhaps, then, we might view Moses’ word-choice at Kadesh—his use of “we” instead of “He”—less as a sin against G‑d and more as an indicator that, due to his lack of awareness of his people’s thought process, he wasn’t the one to lead the people into the next phase of their destiny.

Rather than regarding the exclusion of Moses from the Land as a severe punishment, we might see it as the logical conclusion which resulted from his approach to leadership.

In the desert, Moses had the luxury of attempting to transform the people’s way of thinking into his own; but in Canaan, where they would be overwhelmed by the challenges of materialism, whoever led them would need to learn their thought processes intimately if he was to guide them effectively.

What’s in It for Me?

In one capacity or another, we are all leaders and communicators, influencing others through our words and actions. “Perception is reality,” goes the saying.

In other words, most often it’s not what we say or do that impacts others, but the way our words and actions are understood by our audience.

It’s not enough to say good things; we must say the right things, or make sure to say good things the right way.

In the real world, what we mean to say or do is irrelevant.

We could ignore that fact, or embrace it. We can rise to the challenge of communication, or shirk our responsibility because it demands extra thought and effort.

The choice is ours.