The Strange Allure of Idolatry and Moshe’s Death

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by R. Gil Student

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Sometimes the stories of the Bible resonate with us as they reflect our own feelings and interactions. Other times, they seem puzzling. For example, the repeated worship of idolatry — sticks and stones — baffles us. Even after all those warnings, the Jews keep returning to what seems to us as mere silliness. The midrashic literature offers an explanation.

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:13; Devarim Rabbah 2:9) explains that Moshe did not enter the land of Israel so that in the future, after the resurrection of the dead, he could bring with him the generation of the desert. After the sin of the spies, the generation of the desert was punished with death in the desert. Only their children could enter the land. However, in the future, after the resurrection, they will enter the land. Moshe did not enter the land so that he could bring them into the land in the future.

Rav Yehudah Rosannes, in his Parashas Derakhim (no. 8), asks why Moshe could not have done both? He could have led the children into Israel and died a natural death in Israel, and then at the time of the resurrection lead the generation of the desert into Israel. How does this midrash answer its own question? Rav Rosannes answers in a three step process.

1. The Desire for Idolatry

The Gemara (Arakhin 32b) says that when Ezra returned from Babylonia, he gathered the sages to pray and destroyed the desire, the yetzer ha-ra, for idolatry. It says (Neh. 8:17) that the Jews at the time made sukkos like they had not done since the time of Yehoshua. Is it possible, asks the Gemara, that in the times of King David and other righteous kings, they didn’t make sukkos? Rather, they destroyed the desire for idolatry and this protected them like a sukkah.

If this was possible, why didn’t previous religious leaders destroy the desire for idolatry? This would have saved the nation much trouble! Moshe could not do so, because he did not have the merit of the land of Israel. Yehoshua could have done so but did not, for which he was criticized by the Bible (which calls him Yeshua and not Yehoshua). There is much to discuss about this but Rav Rosannes focuses on the Gemara’s statement that this destruction of the desire for idolatry was only possible in the land of Israel. Even as great a religious figure as Moshe needed the merit of the land and therefore was unable to destroy it.

Based on this understanding, we can explain Moshe’s statement: “Behold I will die in this land… take care lest you forget the covenant of God your Lord that He made with you and you make an idol…” (Deut. 4:22-23). Why does Moshe mention that he will die before entering the land? Even if he did not die and led the people into the land, they still need to take care not to worship idols. While other answers have been suggested, Rav Rosannes explains based on the above: Moshe will not entire the land and therefore he will not be able to destroy the desire for idolatry. The whole reason that Moshe needs to warn the people about idolatry is that he will not be able to enter the land and destroy the desire for this sin.

2. Vows About Houses

Medieval Talmudic commentators disagree about a practical case of vows. The Gemara (Nedarim 47a) says that if someone vows not to enter a person’s house and the house owner dies or sells the house, then the one who made the vow may enter the house. However, if someone vows not to enter “this house,” then even if the owner dies or sells the house, the vow remains in effect and he may not enter that house. What happens if the house collapses and the owner rebuilds it?

Ran (R. Nissim of Gerona; Commentary, ad loc.) says that if you vowed not to enter a person’s house, then if he rebuilt it after it collapses the vow remains in effect. But if he vowed not to enter “this house,” once it collapses it is no longer the same house. Even if the owner rebuilds it, it is his house but a different house.

Rashba (R. Shlomo Ben Aderes; Commentary to Gittin 22b) says that the vow applies also to the land on which the house is built. Therefore, whether the man vowed not to enter the owner’s house or “this house,” the vow remains in effect if the owner rebuilds it.

Ritva (R. Yom Tov of Seville; Not extant in an commentary we have but R. Moshe Chalava says this in his responsa, no. 1) argues that if the house falls, then the vow no longer applies whether the vow was about the owner’s house or “this house.” Once the house collapses, the man who made the vow is free to enter even if the owner rebuilds the house.

If the house falls, Rashba believes the man who made the vow still may not enter in both cases of the vow. Ritva believes he is allowed to enter in both cases. Ran holds that he may enter if he vowed not to enter “this house” but not if he vowed about the owner’s house.

Ritva (Maharam Chalava) proves his lenient view from a midrash (Koheles Rabbah, ch. 10; Vayikra Rabbah 32:2). The Bible quotes God as saying, “That I swore in My wrath, that they should not enter into My resting place” (Ps. 95:10). The midrash says that God vowed that the generation of the desert will not enter His resting place but they will enter another resting place. The midrash compares this to a king who becomes angry with his son and vows that the son may not enter the palace. The king relents and then destroys his palace and rebuilds it so the son can enter. Ritva compares this to the case above of someone who vows not to enter the owner’s house (“My resting place”). If it is destroyed and rebuilt then the vow no longer applies, contrary to the views of both Rashba and Ran.

3. The Destruction of the First Temple

According to this midrash, God vowed that he would not allow the generation of the desert to enter the land of Israel. However, this only applies to the First Temple in Jerusalem. Once that is destroyed, the vow no longer applies.

Tradition teaches that the sin of idolatry caused the destruction of the First Temple. The Gemara (Shabbos 56b) says that if King David had not accepted lashon ha-ra, gossip, then the kingdom would not have split into two, the Jews would not have worshipped idols and would not have been exiled from the land. We see from there that idolatry caused the exile. The Gemara (Yoma 9b) says, based on Isa. (28:20), that the First Temple was destroyed because of idolatry, adultery and bloodshed. We see that idolatry was a clear contributing cause to the destruction and exile.

Rav Rosannes makes the following argument. God had vowed that the generation of the desert would not enter the land and the Temple. This vow applies only while the First Temple was standing. Once it was destroyed, the vow ended and the generation of the desert could enter the land of Israel.

If Moshe had entered the land of Israel, he would have destroyed the desire for idolatry. If Moshe had destroyed the desire for idolatry, there would have been no destruction of the Temple and exile. If there had been no destruction and exile, the vow about the generation of the desert would remain in force and they would not be allowed into the land of Israel.

Therefore, Moshe was restrained from entering the land of Israel so that the generation of the desert could enter in the future. That, suggests Rav Rosannes in his Parashas Derakhim, is the meaning of the midrash.

According to this theory of interconnected midrash, the desire for idolatry is a relic from the biblical era. There is more to say on this subject and more texts that discuss it but for our purposes, the sin of idolatry was of course bad and harmful. It was also part of the course of history, part of the rehabilitation of the generation of the desert. The destruction that idolatry wrought allowed reconstruction and ultimately reunification. There will come a time when Moshe will return to Israel with the generation of the desert. His early death allows for their return.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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