Early Designations

In a Torah reading filled with many important events, e.g., the repetition of the Ten Commandments and the Shema, one small passage is easily overlooked. The Torah relates that at that time, Moses set aside three cities on the eastern side of the Jordan to serve as cities of refuge for anyone who killed accidentally.

However, this designation had no immediate purpose. These cities would only be cities of refuge when the three other cities located—in the land of Israel between the Jordan and the Mediterranean—were set aside, and this would only take place several years later. Why did Moses need to make this designation before his death?

Our Sages answer: When a mitzvah comes to your hand, do not postpone its fulfillment. True, Moses knew all the laws and the significance behind setting aside a city of refuge. But that was all on the intellectual plane. Here he had the chance to take part in the actual fulfillment of the mitzvah. There is nothing higher than that.

The Greatness of a Mitzvah

The Hebrew term mitzvah (מצוה) relates to the term tzavsa (צוותא), which means connection or bond. Every mitzvah represents a bond with G‑d, a step above the limits of humanity and a chance to relate to G‑d on His terms. A person can try to relate to G‑d intellectually or emotionally, but then he is limited by his thoughts and feelings. He can go no further than the limits of his mind and heart. And G‑d certainly transcends those limits.

Indeed, since G‑d is infinite and man is finite, one might think that there is no way that one can ever relate to G‑d, because finiteness and infinity are skew lines that will never intersect.

From man’s own perspective, this is true. But the limits mentioned above do not confine G‑d. His infinity encompasses finiteness as well. He can step into the realm of finiteness and give man a means of bonding with Him.

That’s what mitzvos are. G‑d prescribes a physical deed for man to carry out. True, every one of these deeds has manifold significance, enabling us to refine ourselves and the world at large. But over and above any and all significance, the advantage of a mitzvah is that when a person performs a mitzvah, he or she bonds with G‑d in all of His infinitude.

For this reason, Moses was eager to perform the mitzvah of setting aside the cities of refuge before his passing. He knew the meaning and significance of all the mitzvos, but he was not interested in the intellectual satisfaction that this knowledge brought him. He wanted the infinite bond that can be achieved only through actually fulfilling the mitzvos. That’s why — on a personal level — he prayed so sincerely to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael, as related at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. He wanted the chance to fulfill all of the mitzvos whose observance is associated with our Holy Land. When G‑d did not grant his request, he took the opportunity to fulfill whatever mitzvos he could. Therefore, even though his act would have no immediate effect, he set aside the three cities of refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan.

For Us All

Va’eschanan means “And he prayed,” referring to Moses’s prayer to enter the land of Israel. But why did Moses want to enter the land of Israel? At 120 years old, he certainly had concerns other than to visit tourist attractions.

Our Sages say that he desired to perform the mitzvos that can only be performed in the land. This certainly is a valid answer, as explained above, because the bond with G‑d achieved through the observance of the mitzvos surpasses the bond achieved through study and knowledge alone.

But there is a deeper and necessary answer, Moses was not merely concerned with his own spiritual fulfillment. Moses knew that if he were able to enter the land with the people, he would bring about Mashiach’s coming. There would not have been any potential for exile. That’s what he was praying for.

Why didn’t G‑d grant his request? Because G‑d desires that the redemption not be the product of the Divine service of only one or even several righteous men but of the people as a whole — that every man, woman, and child do their part in bringing about Mashiach’s coming.

Mashiach will introduce an age when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover up the ocean bed.” To anticipate and prepare for that age, the world at large must be filled with G‑dliness. Not only must several righteous men live in a G‑dly manner, but this must be the way of life of the people as a whole.