Commentaries have a field day trying to pinpoint the sin that sealed Moshe’s fate not to bring the people into the Promised Land. Even the language of the Torah is inconclusive, because when the episode of Mei Merivah (Bamidbar Chapter 20, the “Rock incident”) took place, Moshe and Aharon are informed they will not “bring” the people to the land. It is only later that they are told they, too, will not “enter” the land.
In Moshe’s case, he pleads to at least merit to be buried in the Land, a request that is summarily denied. (There are reasons suggested for why he needed to be buried in the Mountains of Moav, and why his gravesite needed to overlook the area where the sin of Ba’al Peor took place.)
Regardless, when one looks at the sources, it seems clear that Moshe’s not entring the Land has nothing to do with the Rock incident. The flaw there, as described in the Torah, is one of leadership. He may have wanted to go into the land, even as a private citizen. Alas, one can argue that being informed at that time that he will not be bringing the people in to the Land, is more likely a nice way of saying what has been known all along. “You can’t lead them, because you won’t be going in. At all. Ever.”
In the beginning of Devarim, Moshe pins the reason on the event of the spies, which predates the Rock incident. This “reason” for not entering the Land is advanced by Abravanel. But is the spies incident the real first indicator that Moshe will not enter the land?
According to the Gemara Sanhedrin (17a), Eldad and Meidad prophesied that Moshe would die and Yehoshua would lead the people into the Land. This episode predates the spies.
The Chizkuni offers two interpretations on Bamidbar 10:29, when Moshe says to his father-in-law, “We are traveling to the land. Come with us!” Either Moshe was tying his fate to everyone else to keep their spirits up, or he was saying that to convince Yisro to come along (he would otherwise think that if Moshe is not entering the Land, how could he enter the Land).
This approach follows Rashi’s thought from our parsha, which I’ll get to in a moment. But the interpretation of Chizkuni indicates Moshe knew, as he was encouraging everyone to go to the Land, that he would not be entering. This predates Eldad and Meidad.
One of Rashi’s last comments on our parsha (Shmot 6:1), quotes a passage from Sanhedrin 111a in which Moshe is told by G-d, “Now you’ll see what I am going to do to Egypt, but you will not see what I am going to do to the kings of Canaan.” This predates the Exodus and the plagues.
Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch comments on the strange hotel incident of 4:23-25, where Rashi says G-d sought Moshe’s death for not having circumcised Eliezer:
G-d’s plans are dependent on no man. … No man — not even Moses — is indispensable to G-d.
In other words, even Moshe might have died at that point, before he even got to Egypt.
Commentaries focus on Moshe’s objection to becoming the leader in 4:13, where Rashi explains Moshe’s complaint to mean, “Send (them) in the hands of the one who will bring them to the Land, because it is not my destiny to bring them.”
Rabbi Obadiah Bartenura notes the nuance in Rashi’s words as he explains, “How could it be suggested that Moshe knew the decree that he would not enter the Land? One could suggest he thought he would enter the Land, but he knew he would not be the leader at that time. ‘It is not my destiny to bring them in to the Land’ is not the same as ‘It is not my destiny to enter the Land.’ He thought he would enter, just as leader emeritus.”
The other indicator is implied from a midrash in Devarim Rabba on Vayelech in which a “measure for measure” punishment is associated with a parallel word utilized by Moshe and by G-d.
When Moshe is told he will die, G-d says to him, “Hen karvu yamekha lamut (indeed your days are numbered until your death).” Moshe had said about the Israelites, in 4:1, “V’hen lo ya’aminu li (indeed they will not believe me, that you sent me).”
The similar use of the word hen, Moshe speaking ill of the Israelites, and G-d speaking ill of Moshe’s destiny (that he’ll die and no longer lead) may indicate a measure for measure punishment, that Moshe is not worthy to be the leader until the end.
While the question of Moshe leading versus entering the Land alone seems to have not been clarified until later, the indications are that from the get-go, Moshe was not going to see the job through to the end.
It is a little deflating. But it is also a very powerful message — that not every person needs to finish everything in a lifetime. When our time is up, hopefully we will have lived a life in which, that which we built, can be continued by others. We may have picked up from those who came before us as well. But if the project is set in motion, and can be finished by a capable successor, we have done pretty well.
We know what Moshe’s job was, and now we know that he wasn’t a failure who didn’t bring his job to its conclusion. His job was to get as far as he got. And while he may have wanted to go further, his not making it further is no indication of failure. On the contrary, he fulfilled his destiny to the utmost.`