This Torah portion is always read on the Shabbos after the fast of Tishah BeAv, the day of tragedy that is the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the quashing of Bar Kochbah’s revolt, the exile from Spain, and many other distressing events in our national history.

It is told that the great Rebbe, R. Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt, once met his friend, the holy Rebbe, R. Yisrael of Ruzhin. R. Avraham Yehoshua saw that R. Yisroel had been crying and asked him the reason for his tears.

“I am crying,” R. Yisroel answered, “because of the great suffering the Jewish people bear and the further suffering that they will have to bear in the future.”

“Don’t worry,” Rav Avraham Yehoshua answered consolingly. “We have been assured that the Jews will not be given any sufferings that they do not have the strength to bear.”

“That’s precisely why I am crying. The Jews have so much patience and forbearance. They seem to be able to tolerate even the most severe forms of suffering.”

Parshas Vaes’chanan

This week’s Torah reading begins with Moses’ plea to enter the land of Israel. Our Sages relate that Moses prayed 515 times to enter the Holy Land. Obviously, Moses was not interested in seeing the sights or tasting the fruit of the land. He desired to enter it, because it was “the Holy Land.” Nevertheless, why was that so important to him? After all, on three different occasions, he had spent 40 days alone with G‑d on Mount Sinai. Seemingly, there can be no greater peak of holiness than that. What then could entering the land of Israel give him?

Our Sages explain that Moses wanted to enter the Holy Land to fulfill the mitzvos, G‑d’s commandments. The observance of many of these commandments is dependent on the Holy Land and its crops and the like. Outside of the Holy Land, these commandments cannot be observed.

But still Moses had been given the entire Torah, including the laws governing these commandments. He knew and understood every dimension concerning them, not only how to observe them, but also their spiritual significance. If so, what would the actual observance of the mitzvos contribute to him?

To resolve these questions, we have to understand the importance of observance in a cosmic sense. There are other faiths which see meditation, prayer, and study as the ultimate goal of man’s efforts. For these endeavors lift a person above his physical and material dimensions and connect him to the spiritual. They see observance as ceremonial deeds to maintain a connection between religion and the common people who are not able to involve themselves in the spiritual activities mentioned above. Or they see it as a mood-setter. After all, the activities we perform influence our thoughts and by performing different actions, we make it easier to attain different meditative states.

Judaism takes a different perspective. The mitzvos should be fulfilled, because G‑d desires that they be fulfilled. Why did G‑d desire? We don’t know and we don’t need to know. We do know that He desired their observance and that is reason enough to motivate us to observe them.

Prayer, meditation, and study lift a person above the material realm, but only relatively so. After all, all these activities depend on our minds and our emotions. And our thoughts and our feelings cannot extend above the mortal level. That is why our Sages said that before the Giving of the Torah, there was a decree separating the world from G‑d, because our minds and our hearts could not reach Him on their own.

How can we reach Him? By doing what He says. The word mitzvah shares a connection to the word tzavta, meaning “bond.” Sometimes, the observance of mitzvos may lead to inspired feelings and thoughts on our side and sometimes, they may not. But that is all immaterial; the essence is that by performing a mitzvah, we are connecting ourselves to G‑d as He exists in His own terms.

Moreover, the mitzvos are acts of service, for they extend that bond into the material world, having it encompass the material objects with which the mitzvah is performed. When a Jew gives a penny to charity — and similarly, when he performs any other mitzvah with a physical object — that physical object is bound up with G‑d’s holiness.

Moses wanted to be part of such a bond. Therefore he prayed to G‑d to allow Him to enter the land of Israel so that he could observe the mitzvos there.

Looking to the Horizon

Other commentaries explain that Moses’ intent was even deeper than that, for Moses had no thoughts of his individual spiritual achievements at all. He was dedicated entirely to his people. Why did he want to enter the Holy Land? Because had he been the one to lead the Jews into the land, he would have become revealed as Mashiach and all the subsequent trials and tribulations that have plagued Jewish history ever since would have been avoided.

Why weren’t his prayers accepted? On one level, it can be explained that the Jews were not worthy. Their sins and their failure to trust G‑d throughout the 40 years of wandering through the desert had affected their spiritual rung and they were not fit for Mashiach.

But on a deeper level, Mashiach’s coming was not withheld as punishment. It was withheld, because the world had not been refined to the extent that it was ready to receive him. Had Moses’ prayer been accepted, Mashiach’s coming would have against the nature of the world and that is opposite to the entire motif of the Ultimate Redemption. For the Ultimate Redemption will not represent merely the revelation of G‑dliness on His terms, but also the refinement of this material world and the internalization of that revelation. The world was not ready for that in Moses’ time. That is the goal of the thousands of years of Divine service that has followed: to prepare the world and enable to it to internalize the revelations of Mashiach’s age.