Yesterday we read Va’etchannan, which begins with Moses’ rejected plea to enter the Land of Israel. While Moses is not allowed to go, God does tell him to “Go up to the top of the Pisga, and lift up thy eyes westward, northward, southward, and eastward, and behold with thy eyes, because you will not cross the Jordan (river)” (Deuteronomy 3:27)
The question (which someone pointed out to me in shul), is why does God tell Moses to look the wrong way? Israel is to the west of where Moses is standing, and even to look north(west) and south(west) may make sense. But why east? That is simply the opposite direction from where Moses should look!
We will suggest 5 answers to this question, but of course this list isn’t exhaustive, and you may find none are acceptable to you.
1) God tells Moses to look in all 4 directions as this is merely an expression for “look everywhere/around”. It does not literally mean he should look east, but rather that he should look as much as he likes. This would appear to be a sort of concession to Moses. God will not let him in, but will let him look.
2) It is an angry expression, meaning “look everywhere”. This is actually not quite the same. In this understanding, God tells Moses “Look as much as you want, but you will not cross the Jordan”. In this reading we understand God to be angry with Moses for asking, as He “was angry, and would not hear me”(v.26). Perhaps according to this reading we may understand that Moses was in fact allowed to look at Israel the entire time, and did not need special permission for this. After all, why would he? Therefore, when he asks to go in, God tells him he may continue to look all he likes, but that’s all he’ll get.
3) Perhaps we might look for a deeper lesson in this strange command to look in the wrong direction. I’ll split this suggestion into two for Mystics and Rationalists.
a) Mystical Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him about the status of the east. Just as the land of Israel (to the west) is inherently holy, so too the land of Jordan (to his east, which two and half tribes have recently decided to settle in) is inherently holy as well. Thus it is exactly like the rest of Israel.
b) Rationalist Interpretation- God tells Moses to look east to teach him that just as Jordan’s land (eastward) is not used for mitzvot, and is therefore not holy, so too Israel will not be holy if it is not used for the performance of mitzvoti.
4) My wife mentioned to me that she was once taught that God in fact transported Moses to Israel in a vision, and then told him to look around in all four directions. I have not found the source for this, but this obviously would answers our question as well.
To be honest, my immediate reaction to the question was to shrug, and suggest the first answer listed here. The classical commentators (or at least all the ones included in the Torat Chaim Chumash) don’t address this question at all, so I’m inclined to think they agree with me that it’s just an expression.
While this question isn’t the strongest one in history, I think it’s worth looking at because how we answer it tells us a little bit about how we each read Tanakh (Bible), and of course, because of the general value of learning.
Let me know if you can find the source for the last suggestion!
iThis ties in nicely with the explanation (BT Sotah 14A) that Moshe wanted to enter Israel so that he could perform the mitzvot that are specific to it, which is cited by Abravanel and Chizkuni on 3:25.