Skip to content

Parashat Va’etchanan 5777 — 08/05/2017

Parashat Va’etchanan 5777 — 08/05/2017

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

In the first two verses of our parashah, Rashi gives us two different pictures of the actions of a prophet vis-à-vis his relationship with Gd.

Va’etchanan: “I implored”  Forms of the word chanun in all places mean nothing other than [granting or requesting] a free gift.  Although the righteous could make [their request] dependent on their good deeds, they seek from the Omnipresent only a gift without payment.  Because [Gd] told [Moses] “And I shall show favor to whom I shall show favor,” (Ex 33:19), he spoke to Him using the word va’etchanan. (3:23, Midrash Tanchuma 3)

        “You have begun to show your servant…” an opening to engage in prayer – although the decree [i.e. that Moses could not enter the Land] had already been issued.  Moses said to Gd “I have learned from you, for You told me ‘And now, let go of Me’ [Ex 32:10].  Was I holding on to You?  But you told me this to make an opening for me by letting me know that it depended on me to pray for them [i.e. Israel, after the calf].  I was under the impression that I should do the same now.” (3:24, Sifrei 27)

In the first verse it appears that Moshe has opted not to “use up” any of his store of merits in order to try to induce Gd to let him enter the Land.  Alternatively, Moshe, in his humility, didn’t feel that he “deserved” anything from Gd, and therefore chose to ask Gd for a free gift; thus the expression va’etchanan for “pray, implore” rather than the more common va’etpalel, “I prayed.”

Now while it is certainly true that “as you sow, so shall you reap,” the idea that we have a bank account of merits and demerits on the cosmic computer/ATM, and that we can “spend” those merits in either this world or the next, has always seemed a little too mechanical to me.  Further, I think it can lead to all kinds of distortions, like performing mitzvot just to gain credits, rather than because they’re Gd’s commandments, or purely out of the love of Gd and the desire to draw closer to Him.  In addition, it would have been a very poor investment choice for Moshe.  Our Sages tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to enter the Land because of all the mitzvot that can only be performed in the Land of Israel (mostly, but not entirely, agricultural ones).  Had he “invested” some of his merits to “buy” his way into the Land, he could have replaced them manifold!  Warren Buffett would have jumped at the chance!  Needless to say, Gd cannot be “bought,” even by the merits of the righteous, so we have to understand this concept differently.

In the second verse we find a different approach.  In this case, Israel was facing destruction by Gd after the sin of the Golden Calf.  Gd said, “Let me go” (in order to carry out the decree).  Moshe took this as an opening to pray to Gd, and realized that the success of the Exodus and Revelation depended on his efforts.  Now Rashi comments, “Was I holding on to You?” and we assume that the comment is meant rhetorically.  But perhaps we can take it literally – Moshe Rabbeinu was on top of the mountain, learning Torah from Gd for 40 days without a break, without eating and drinking.  How could he have done that?  He was “holding on” to Gd for dear life!!  But why does Gd’s command to leave Him alone imply to Moshe that he should pray?  Perhaps we can answer this way.  Prayer is communication with Gd.  For there to be communication, there must be some distance.  Perhaps what Gd was telling Moshe was this: It is necessary for you to pray in order to save the Israelites from the consequences of their action.  However, you are too absorbed in Me now to pray – your individuality, which is to connect with Me has become too identified with Me.  Therefore, leave Me be, i.e. descend from your level of attachment to Me, so that you can pray for Israel.  In fact, Gd does tell Moshe, “Go, descend…” – get down from the mountain and take care of your flock (Ex 32:7).  Apparently even being attached to Gd has its limitations!

Now how can we relate these two ideas?  First there is the issue of “deserving” something from Gd.  This is a very tricky concept.  On the one hand, Gd is our Creator, and we are in His debt for our very lives.  Whatever we give to Gd, be it an offering, or charity, or performance of a mitzvah, belongs to Gd to begin with, as it says: for all things come from Thee, and of Thine own have we given Thee. (I Chron 29:14)  So since even our own bodies belong to Gd, it is hard to understand how we can claim anything by right.  Moshe, the most humble of men, who was closest to Gd, was the most acutely aware of this fact.  Whatever we have comes to us from Gd’s Attribute of Mercy (midat harachamim).

On the other hand, Gd does set up His world in such a way that actions have consequences, which He spells out in Torah.  Right action indeed carries with it reward and vice versa.  In this sense, perhaps one can have a claim against Gd, although that approach didn’t work very well for Job.  Making a claim for what one “deserves” from Gd means asking to be evaluated by Gd’s Attribute of Strict Justice (midat hadin).  There are many stories in our tradition of Gd’s exacting standard’s being applied to the extremely righteous, so being judged according to Strict Justice is not something that one wants to go looking for.  Perhaps this is the reason Moshe chose to use the language va’etchanan.  He was asking for a rescission of a decree that was issued by Gd in response to Moshe’s hitting the rock to draw forth water, rather than speaking to it.  That incident was perhaps the one time in his life that Moshe fell short of the mark, yet now, when seeking to overturn the reaction to it, was hardly an auspicious time for the Attribute of Strict Justice to take out the ledger sheets!

When it came to praying for the nation after the Golden Calf incident of course there was no question of Moshe’s invoking the Attribute of Strict Justice – rather Moshe’s task was to turn the Attribute of Justice into the Attribute of Mercy, which he was mostly successful in doing.  Moshe’s vast merits were not of much use to the Israelites of course, so he had to approach Gd as “a beggar with hat in hand.”  How much more should we, who have few merits and much on the other side of the ledger, approach Gd in humility and ask Him to let His Mercy overpower His Attribute of Judgment!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Va’Etchanan

Deuteronomy 4

“Play nice; don’t fight”. Momma may have said this to us and our playmates when we were children:

Moses tells us that Gd says it to us always. When we stay together, when we are a community, a nation,

Gd appears to us and leads us out of trouble and into the good land, the Good Land, and which we directly experience that Gd is Gd, there is no other.


33. Did ever a people hear God’s voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?

לג  הֲשָׁמַע עָם קוֹל אֱלֹהִים מְדַבֵּר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ אַתָּה וַיֶּחִי:

34  Or has any god performed miracles to come and take him a nation from the midst of a[nother] nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?

לד  אוֹ | הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיךָ:

35  You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him.

לה אַתָּה הָרְאֵתָ לָדַעַת כִּי יְהֹוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים אֵין עוֹד מִלְּבַדּוֹ:

36  From the heavens, He let you hear His voice to instruct you, and upon the earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire,

לו  מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם הִשְׁמִיעֲךָ אֶת קֹלוֹ לְיַסְּרֶךָּ וְעַל הָאָרֶץ הֶרְאֲךָ אֶת אִשּׁוֹ הַגְּדוֹלָה וּדְבָרָיו שָׁמַעְתָּ מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ:
37  and because He loved your forefathers and chose their seed after them, and He brought you out of Egypt before Him with His great strength,

לז  וְתַחַת כִּי אָהַב אֶת אֲבֹתֶיךָ וַיִּבְחַר בְּזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו וַיּוֹצִאֲךָ בְּפָנָיו בְּכֹחוֹ הַגָּדֹל מִמִּצְרָיִם:
38  to drive out from before you nations greater and stronger than you, to bring you and give you their land for an inheritance, as this day.

לח  לְהוֹרִישׁ גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים וַעֲצֻמִים מִמְּךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ לַהֲבִיאֲךָ לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת אַרְצָם נַחֲלָה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
39  And you shall know this day and consider it in your heart, that the Lord He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none else.

לט  וְיָדַעְתָּ הַיּוֹם וַהֲשֵׁבֹתָ אֶל לְבָבֶךָ כִּי יְהֹוָה הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים בַּשָּׁמַיִם מִמַּעַל וְעַל הָאָרֶץ מִתָּחַת אֵין עוֹד:

Deuteronomy 7

6 For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God: the Lord your God has chosen you to be His treasured people, out of all the peoples upon the face of the earth.

ו כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּךָ בָּחַר | יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:

What qualities do we as the Jewish people have that make us special, that Gd loves us particularly and protects us?

The answer to this may lie with the qualities that Moses had, the qualities that enabled him to be in Gd’s presence and living though our ancestors were afraid they would die if they  even heard more of Gd’s voice then they heard when He gave the 10 Statements/Utterances/Commandments at Mt Sinai.

What qualities were those and how can we obtain them?

Torah tells us that Moses was the humblest man there was: and humility means he was completely open to Gd; though Gd preserved Moses’ personality, Moses used it so serve Gd, even though this sometimes meant challenging Gd.

This openness meant Moses could be in Gd’s Presence without fear.

This quality our ancestors had some of, enough to be special enough to deserve special attention.

It is a quality we can continue to grow in by doing our best to follow the guidance of Torah and the Rabbis and our parents, our elders, our teachers, our friends: as we grow in respect and humility, in love and a desire to serve Gd and our neighbors, we lose any fear that might cause us to put obstacles between us and Gd’s Presence: we become open for Gd to reveal Gd’s Oneness within us, and we become Us and we become One.

Lovely! Let us keep doing it!

Baruch HaShem