By Rabbi Binyamin Kahane
Translated by Lenny Goldberg
In Parshat Vaetchanan, we witness a dramatic exchange of words between G-d and Moshe. Moshe opens by requesting of G-d that He allow him to enter the Land of Israel. G-d refuses Moshe’s supplication unequivocally, stating: “”It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter…for you shall not cross this Jordan. (Devarim 3:26-27) Not only was Moshe banned from entering the Land of Israel in his lifetime due to his sin at the waters of Meriva, but he was also prevented from being buried there after his death. The reason for this is brought down in the Midrash (Devarim Rabba, 8:2): “G-D said to Moshe ‘Whoever acknowledges his homeland is buried in his homeland. Whoever does not acknowledge his homeland, is not buried in his homeland.’…When the daughters of Yitro said, ‘An egyptian man (Moshe) saved us from the shepherds, Moshe heard and remained silent. Therefore, he was not buried in his homeland.”
What Does It Mean: “To Acknowledge Your Homeland”?
Two questions can be raised regarding this Midrash:
- How can Moshe be blamed for covering up his identity when the entire reason he fled to Midian in the first place was because of his unending and burning love for his people? Back in the book of Exodus, we saw that it was a strong identification with his people which caused him to smite the Egyptian taskmaster who was striking a Jewish slave, causing his exile to Midian in the first place. This being the case, why should Moshe, this genuine lover of Israel, be turned into one who does “not acknowledge his homeland”, just because he did not correct the words of the daughters of Yitro? Did Moshe’s loyalty to his people need further proof after his awesome act, one which was motivated precisely by an identification with his people?
- Why does the Midrash specifically use the term “homeland”, when apparently what is being referred to is acknowledgment of “people” or “national identity”?!
One can see from this that the criticism against Moshe is not for a lack of identification with the people of Israel. Moshe undoubtedly proved himself in this regard. And so, it is clear that the use of the terminology “did not acknowledge his homeland” is used by the Midrash to teach us that Moshe was being punished for something else.
This matter of “not acknowledging his homeland” means that when fleeing to Midian, Moshe felt that Egypt was his homeland. This is expressed in just a few verses following the story of the daughters of Yitro. There it is told that Moshe named his firstborn son Gershon, “because I was a stranger (ger) in a strange land”. That is, Moshe felt like a stranger, cut off from his natural habitat, Egypt. When the Midrash says Moshe did not acknowledge his homeland, it is faulting him for his feeling, even on a subconscious level, that Egypt is his homeland. After all, he was born and raised there. And so when the daughters of Yitro reported to their father, “an Egyptian man saved us”, Moshe’s lack of protest was not due to a fear of identifying himself with his nation and possibly endangering himself. Rather, he did not protest because being identified as an “Egyptian” indicated one who resides in a certain geographical area. Moshe didn’t view this as a problem. His response should have been: “Me? A descendant of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov? An Egyptian? My place is Egypt? Heaven Forbid! Though I have never lived there, my homeland is Eretz Yisrael!” However, as we explained, this feeling did not sufficiently burn within him.
It is absolutely impossible to sever the connection between the Jewish People and the Jewish land. A Jew cannot say: I am a complete Jew, I love my people, and I cling to the Torah – but I do it in Brooklyn, London, or Miami Beach. Part and parcel to the Jewish identity is his belonging to his land.
This is the reason the sages tell us that mitzvot which are fulfilled in the exile are observed for practice so that we do not forget them when we come back to the land of Israel. Ibn Ezra writes in our parsha (4:10): “G-d knew they would be unable to do mitzvot properly when they are in lands under foreign control.” The Sforno adds (6:21): “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and since in our servitude we were unable to acquire the perfection directed to us from G-d, He miraculously took us out and brought us to a land where we would be able to acquire it completely.” Therefore, even though Moshe never saw his land, it was incumbent upon him to feel he was a man of Eretz Yisrael, and not of Egypt, which like all exiles, is not the home of the Jews. Moshe’s punishment was measure for measure. You did not acknowledge your homeland and felt that it was possible to be both a good Jew and at the same to be an “Egyptian” (a man of the land of Egypt). Therefore, you will not be buried in your land.