10/03/2012 10:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12: 'And This Is the Blessing'

Once on a trip to western Jordan, I went to Mount Nebo. On the top of the modest mountain stand the ruins of a 4th century church and some lovely mosaics. But there are much more interesting archeological sites elsewhere in Jordan. The purpose in coming to Mt. Nebo has always been the view.

Here's the background: According to the end of the previous Torah portion, God instructs Moses to climb to the top of Mt. Nebo for that is where Moses will die (Deuteronomy 32:48). God reminds Moses that this was a punishment for mishandling a situation in which the Israelites demanded water during their long journeying in the desert; instead of telling a particular rock to bring forth water, as God had instructed him, Moses struck it twice and harshly castigated the Israelites for demanding water. Because of these actions, Moses would not be allowed to enter the land with the other Israelites (Numbers 20: 7-12).

Jewish thinkers have struggled to understand this seemingly harsh verdict by moving straight to accountability. Rashi, the medieval French commentator, says that Moses' sin was disobedience in striking the rock instead of speaking to it. Maimonides, in his tractate on desirable behaviors, wrote that his sin was giving in to anger. Rabbeinu Chananel, an 11th century Tunisian commentator, said that Moses wanted to take credit for the miracle of water and not attribute it to God.

Many modern explanations tend to focus on the high standards set for leaders and that even one small misstep can undermine 40 years of faithful service.

Whatever the reason, in this week's portion Moses ascended Mt. Nebo to accept his punishment. He went by foot. (Rashi commented that the mountain was very steep, but Moses managed to get to the top in a single step.) And then God showed him the view, the entire Promised Land, from north to south, and all the way west to the Mediterranean Sea. (Rashi says that God even showed him the glorious and bloody future of everything that would happen in that land.)

When I went to Mt. Nebo, I was driven in an air-conditioned bus. We got out and stood on the edge of the cliff to look across to the west. It was a clear day but I couldn't see the full dimensions or any hint of the future. However, I did see opposite me, rising high over the deep Jordan River Valley below, the skyscrapers of Jerusalem.

Standing in that place, looking across at the holy city, my heart ached for Moses and what he might have seen and felt. I remembered the last words that God spoke to Moses before his death: "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 'I will assign it to your offspring.' I have let you see it with your own eyes, but you shall not cross there." (Deuteronomy 34:4) and I realized I had misunderstood the story all along.

I had the advantage none of those commentators had. I was standing where Moses stood. And in that place, I realized that this was not a story of accountability and punishment only. It is not simply a story of character development or the burdens of leadership. It is certainly not just a story about land allocation. Moses' view on the top of Mt. Nebo is a story of what it means to work toward a great vision. Even more than that, it is a story of what it means to be mortal.

We all have visions in our lives, some more grandiose than others. Perhaps it is to effect some kind of social change; perhaps it is to nurture a particular kind of family or to achieve a certain rank in our field of work. Perhaps it is to attain a level of wisdom and self-awareness. In some cases, the vision didn't begin with us; it originated with our parents, teachers and mentors who helped shape us, inspire us and move us on our way. But to be mortal means that that we each have a Mt. Nebo, a place we stand and finally internalize that, like Moses, that goal we have worked towards our entire life will actually not be met in our lifetime.

But we can catch glimpses of it. We can occasionally see the goal clearly before us, in both scope and time, even though we know we will never actually be able to go there. And perhaps that is the blessing of the name of our portion, Ve'Zot Ha'Brakhah -- "And this is the blessing." It is a blessing to remember that we are part of something bigger than us, that we can contribute, but that others will take it on -- and change and develop it.

The Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in El Salvador in 1980, wrote:

"This is what we are about:

We plant seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything

and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something,

and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,

an opportunity for God's grace to enter and do the rest."

That is not failing in accountability. Perhaps Moses, on the top of Mt. Nebo, would have agreed.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.