The medieval commentators are in disagreement. When Moses declares that “I cannot come and go” (Deuteronomy 31:2), Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno comments that Moses’ declaration is an admission that in old age (and Moses was 120 years-old) any and all movement is hard. However, the previous verse describes Moses’ “going” to all the tribes and in 34:7 Moses is described as enjoying unabated power to the very end of his life. The pre-eminent medieval commentator, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaqi (known by his acronym RaShI) interprets Moses’ statement to mean “I no longer have any authority.” Indeed, verse 7 has Moses affirming that the leadership mantle has been transferred to Joshua.
Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as the Ba’al Ha-Turim, understands Moses’ statement in terms of the most highly regarded of all Jewish activities, namely, the study of Torah. Moses, sadly, admits that at his age he can no longer concentrate in study. In contrast, Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra interprets Moses’ statement in military terms. Moses reports that he can no longer lead the people into battle. Ibn Ezra sees support for his view in verse 3 where Moses declares that God will wipe out the enemies who stand against the Israelites and verse 6 where Moses asserts that God will march into battle with the Israelites. Except for Seforno’s very sensible but contradicted view, all the other interpretations have merit and even textual support.
But perhaps the most maudlin reading of Moses’ declaration is offered by the Tosafists, primarily Talmudic commentators of the twelfth century. To the Tosafists, Moses’ words should not be interpreted as an admission of weakness but as a statement of resignation. Despite his pleas for a different outcome, Moses is finally resigned to the fact that he is barred from entry into the Promised Land. “I cannot come and go” means that I cannot fulfill my dream and reach the Holy Land.
The realization that one’s dreams shall never reach fruition is the most pathetic moment in life. Douglas MacArthur was one of the most respected and popular American generals in American history. But he was summarily and inauspiciously fired before he could succeed. In his farewell address to Congress he said: “Old soldiers never die; they simply fade away.” Yet Moses does not simply fade away. He proceeds to ensure a peaceable and smooth transition of power, and works towards leaving behind a legacy that will outlive him. It is a superb example to follow.