The Smell of Canaan

Va'et-hannan By :  Alisa Braun Academic Director, Community Engagement Posted On Aug 19, 2016 / 5776 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective
The smell of Canaan he has had for all his life; that he should see the land only before his death is hard to believe. . . . Not because his life was too short does Moses not reach Canaan, but because it was a human life.
—Franz Kafka, in a diary entry from 1921

I am always moved by how human Moses appears as Va’et‑hannan opens. He has already passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua, yet he still pleads with God, still hoping to enter the Promised Land. Perhaps uncomfortable with Moses’s appeal to see the “goodly hill and Lebanon,” to focus on natural beauty and the concrete, the commentators read this as his longing for Jerusalem and the Temple. But I can easily understand Moses’s desire to engage his sense of sight, which had been deprived for so long while wandering in the desert wilderness.

Kafka identifies Moses’s struggle and disappointment with the human experience, and picks up on the sensory in a different way. He understands human life as a never-ending struggle toward liberation, a struggle concluded only by death. We persist in pursuing goals, all the while knowing they cannot be achieved in our lifetime. What is Moses’s goal? I think Kafka’s choice of “the smell of Canaan” is telling. The image I have is of the scent-hound, who pursues his prey even though he cannot see it. Scent-hounds do not need to be fast—they can stick with a scent and follow it for long distances over all kinds of terrain. But how did Moses, who had never been to Canaan, recognize the scent to begin with?

What Kafka understands about Moses’s journey is that it is not only a struggle toward something but also a kind of return. Moses was striving for a place that promised freedom and where the Israelite community could flourish, one he already knew. His longing, which Kafka reads as our longing, a human one, is for the safety and security of home.