‘Vaetchanan — and I entreated God emphatically at that time.”
Moses has already been informed of God’s immutable decree: He would not be permitted to complete his mission by bringing Israel into the Promised Land. Nevertheless, Moses felt encouraged to pray for the decree to be rescinded. But as this verse states, his request was rejected.
The Ishbitzer (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854) asks why Moses mentions this episode when seemingly his prayer was turned down. What leader tells his followers about his failures? Wasn’t it embarrassing?
In II Kings, Hezekiah is visited by the prophet Isaiah on his sickbed and told to “set his affairs in order.” A death sentence had been pronounced against him for this life and the next. And, the prophet adds, such a judgment is irrevocable. (According to Talmud, as soon as he heard this, the king leapt out of bed and told Isaiah to stop moralizing and get out.) Hezekiah then turned to face the wall, pointedly ignored Isaiah, and prayed. A religious tradition from an even higher spiritual authority — the royal line of his grandfather, King David — held that even in the face of death, one should never stop praying for God’s mercies, which overturn every decree.
What Hezekiah’s “wall” stands for, says the Ishbitzer, is the “chambers of the human heart,” the barriers we put between ourselves and God. God is moved by Hezekiah’s pleas and grants him 15 more years, during which he became a model ruler.
Moses did not get such a positive response: “Enough already! Pray to Me no more about that!”
Ramban tells us that God’s answer to Moses “at that time” was in fact positive. Moses offered two prayers: one, a personal request to enter “the good Land.” The other expresses his concern that the people not become lost like sheep without a leader, to which God responded: “Command Joshua.” What became of Moses’ dearest request, we are left to wonder.
A superficial understanding of this parasha’s title may suggest that Moses, reflecting on his fate with irony, resorted to a pun. The root of the Hebrew word “vaetchanan” is “chen,” or grace, mercy; it also means pure freedom or nothingness.
Forty years previously, God had hardly liberated Israel from slavery and given the Torah when the nation proceeded to worship the Golden Calf. While they were under sentence of death, their leader basked in God’s favor. Moses had “chen,” a certain charm, as did Esther, of whom it is told, “Because she asked for no favors before going into the king, she touched the hearts of all who saw her. Because she asked for nothing, she elicited divine grace.”
In mid-career, Moses intervenes on the nation’s behalf, ready to put his life on the line to save them from destruction. If God does not extend to the entire nation the same sympathy He feels for His favorite, Moses says, “Blot me out of Your book.” (Exodus, 32:32) To which God essentially replies: “I will be gracious to whom I like and love whom I want.” The tacit understanding is that this person is Moses, and forgiving Israel is for his sake.
Fast-forward to the present parasha, and the situation seems entirely changed. Now that the nation and Joshua are moving on without him, does Moses’ resort to this form of prayer, called Tachnunim, serve as poignant recall of lost influence? Indicating that the verb in this case is reflexive — Vaetchanan — “And I wrapped myself in entreaties for divine mercy,” the Shem Mishmuel (Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain, 1855-1926) says that this powerful wave of emotion breaks down barriers of self and is directed toward loved ones or even something beyond.
While he seems to ask for something for himself, Moses was actually demonstrating for the people a way to deepen their relationship with God throughout the generations. The Talmud tells us there are 10 forms of prayer. But when all else fails, one’s only recourse, like a child or a beggar, is not to rely on one’s merits but to fall back on God’s mercy. What appeals to the Omnipotent above all is “chen,” composed of pure altruism.
By wrapping himself in this prayer for grace, Moses demonstrated that casting oneself on divine mercy creates openings for mercy to enter. A good thing to remember anytime, but especially on Shabbat Nachamu, when, in so brief a period, we have passed from the destruction of both Temples on Tisha b’Av to a “time of favor.”
Freema Gottlieb is a writer and lecturer. Her book, “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light,” is available as a Kindle edition on Amazon.com. Her talks on the weekly Torah reading may be found on YouTube.
Candlelighting: 7:54 p.m.
Torah reading: Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11
Haftorah reading: Isaiah 40:1-40:26
Shabbat ends: 8:56 p.m.