One of the primary themes of Moshe Rabbeinu’s speeches in the beginning of Sefer Devarim is the need to avoid and eliminate all Avodah Zarah. Time and time again, Moshe reiterates the great threat that Avodah Zarah poses to the nation and the dire consequences of succumbing to it (see, for example, 4:25-40, 5:10-15, 6:2-4, and 6:15). In Parshat Vaetchanan, Moshe devotes a very long section to this topic (4:12-24), emphasizing the absence of any image at Har Sinai and detailing all the myriad forms of Avodah Zarah which Bnei Yisrael must spurn. Towards the end of this section, he adds, “VaHashem Hitanaf Bi Al Divreichem, VaYishava Levilti Ovri Et HaYarden…VeAtem Ovrim ViRishtem Et HaAretz…,” “Hashem became angry with me because of you, and He swore that I would not cross the Yarden…but you will cross and inherit the Land…” (4:2-22). This seems to be a total non sequitur, especially in light of the fact that the next Pasuk returns to the original topic of Avodah Zarah. Why do we have this apparently random insertion?
The Meshech Chochmah explains that Moshe is calling attention to a subtler-than-usual potential pitfall of Avodah Zarah. It is clear from various passages in the Torah that Moshe’s inability to enter the Land results from some sin he performed, although the details of this sin are extremely vague in the Pesukim. The entire reason, claims the Meshech Chochmah, that Hashem has chosen specifically this punishment is the potential for Bnei Yisrael to deify him. The old generation, the Dor Hamidbar, always treated Moshe as a plain human being, without hesitating to complain to him or even challenge him. (Though the latter is clearly not a good thing, it certainly does demonstrate a particular attitude.) These people saw with their own eyes the miracles that the man Moshe performed in Mitzrayim and thereafter, so they know exactly what Moshe did and did not do, and perceived the less-than-Divine nature of their leader. The new generation, however, is at risk of turning Moshe into a living myth; they have no experience with Moshe the man, only Moshe the supernatural leader, the “Ish HaElokim.” This problem will only be reinforced by the stories of the extraordinary miracles he performed in the past. Therefore, there is a significant risk that they will regard him as some sort of independently powerful supernatural being – effectively making him an Avodah Zarah. To avert this problem, Hashem decrees that the punishment for Moshe’s sin will be his inability to enter the Land with them. Moshe then reminds the nation of this issue here in his discussion of Avodah Zarah: as he continues in the next few Pesukim, Bnei Yisrael must not “forget the covenant of Hashem…and make…any kind of statue” (4:23), including any deification of Moshe himself. By pointing out that he was actually forbidden to enter the Land because of the issue of Avodah Zarah, Moshe powerfully underscores the immeasurable importance of this concern.
The Meshech Chochmah’s explanation seems slightly difficult. Very rarely does anyone become a legend in his own lifetime to the extent that he actually becomes an Avodah Zarah. Indeed, it is after a great leader’s lifetime, when the leader is no longer present to renounce any such claims of divinity, that he is most likely to be idolized. When Moshe would die, all that would be left of him would be the stories about him. Moshe the man would completely disappear from sight, and the new generation would see even less of his human aspects than they would if he led them into the Land! If anything, Moshe’s exclusion from Eretz Yisrael compounds the problem, not solves it!
I would like to suggest that the cause and effect here are in fact the reverse of the Meshech Chochmah’s interpretation. In some way, Moshe’s earlier sin, whatever it was, showed his inability to lead the new generation of Bnei Yisrael (see Rav Moshe Lichtenstein’s Tzir Vatzon and the comments of other Acharonim, such as the Netziv, about this issue). As such, he cannot be the one to lead them into Eretz Yisrael. But this generates the problem raised by the Meshech Chochmah – in his absence, Moshe will become the stuff of legend, possibly even a godlike figure. Moshe is apparently worried about the same issue as was Yaakov Avinu, who, according to the Midrash and Rashi (to Bereshit 47:28-31), did not want to be buried in Mitzrayim for fear of being deified and worshipped. Perceiving this danger, Moshe warns Bnei Yisrael now, in the midst of his other exhortations against Avodah Zarah, that they must avoid this snare, too. He is emphasizing not just the severity of Avodah Zarah, but the necessity of recognizing Moshe’s own true status. He is not a superhuman or a god, and he wants to make it perfectly clear to Bnei Yisrael before he parts with them that they must never mistake him for such.
If this explanation is correct, Moshe’s message here fits quite nicely with the theme of the rest of Sefer Devarim. Throughout the Sefer, Moshe is trying to prepare Bnei Yisrael for life without his constant guiding presence. He must teach them everything they need to know for a successful life in Eretz Yisrael in which Moshe will no longer be around to teach and guide them, a point which Ramban makes on this very Pasuk. As part of this preparation process, Moshe must also warn Bnei Yisrael of all the potential pitfalls of Avodah Zarah (another idea the Ramban mentions here), including the risk of worshipping Moshe himself.
Regardless of which interpretation of Moshe’s message is more correct, Moshe displays tremendous leadership skills here. He is extraordinarily sensitive to the needs and concerns of the people he leads, preparing them in every way possible for his leave-taking and its consequences – even when it involves pointing out his own mistakes and limitations. He plans thoroughly and carefully for every aspect of the nation’s continuance after his departure. Moshe is truly the (human) paradigm of sensitive, effective, and foresighted Jewish leadership.