“Shabbat Shalom” – Parshat Va’etchanan 5779

This week’s parsha has been sponsored in honor of the marriage of
Orah Schlanger and Saadia Tuchman 
With warmest wishes to the Tuchman, Stieglitz and Schlanger families for continued nachat and joy

Shabbat Shalom: Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin   

Efrat, Israel“And I [Moses] entreated the Lord at that time, saying, ‘let me pass over the [the River Jordan] please so that I may see the good land.’” (Deuteronomy 3:23, 25)

Moses places two entreaties before the Lord at the end of his life concerning the leadership of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel: one is right here, in which he asks that he be allowed “to cross over and see the good land beyond the Jordan River” and presumably continue to lead the Israelites. This entreaty to lead, although not made directly, is implied in God’s response: “You must command Joshua, strengthen him and give him resolve, for he shall cross before this nation and shall bring them to inherit the land” (Deut. 3:28). The second request came earlier, in the biblical portion of Pineĥas, and is not at all stated by Moses directly. It is merely inferred by the sages of the Midrash, since Moses requests of God to appoint his successor right after the Bible informs us that the daughters of Tzelafĥad can inherit their father (Num. 27:11). It is then that Moses requests, “Let the Lord God of the spirits of all flesh appoint a leader over the witness assembly” (27:15–16). Listen to the words of the Midrash:

What caused Moses to request his replacement after the inheritance of the daughters? Since these daughters inherited their father, Moses declared, “This is the right moment for me to claim my need. After all, if these women can inherit [their father] my sons should certainly inherit my glory.” The Holy One, blessed be He said to him: “The guardian of the fig tree shall eat of its fruit” [Prov. 27:18]. Your sons sat idly by themselves and were not occupied in the study of Torah. Joshua, on the other hand, served you well and extended to you much honor. He would arrive at your courthouse early in the morning and leave late at night…. Appoint Joshua the son of Nun as your successor, to fulfill the verse, “the guardian of the fig tree shall eat of its fruit.”

Hence, Moses’ two requests: the explicit plea to God that he be allowed to enter the Land of Israel and, presumably, lead them himself, and the implicit plea that God appoint his sons as his successors.

Both requests are denied. The first, his children as his successors, is denied because his sons are found wanting; they did not have the necessary Torah qualifications to be religious leaders in their father’s footsteps. Very likely, Moses himself realizes their lack of worthiness and therefore does not specifically make this request verbally; he merely thinks it in his heart, and the Bible informs us of his heart’s desire by placing his request for replacement after the inheritance of the daughters of Tzelafĥad. Perhaps Moses understands that he himself bears some guilt for the flaws in his children. After all, he is so consumed with his relationship with the Divine that he doesn’t seem to have the time or the patience for family. Does the Bible not record that he was seemingly too busy to even circumcise his son Eliezer, so that his life had to be saved by his wife Tzipora who performed the circumcision herself in order to save Moses from punishment for his neglect (Ex. 4:24–26)?

Moses apparently is more comfortable making the second request – that he be allowed to enter the Promised Land. It is this entreaty which opens our portion of Va’etĥanan. The entire purpose of the Exodus from Egypt is to enter the Land of Israel. After all of his sacrifices and all of his difficulties with an unwilling and backsliding Israelite nation, does he not deserve to reach his life’s goal, enter the Land of Israel, and begin this new era of Jewish history with himself as their leader?

But here again the request is denied: “And the Lord was angry at me because of you and He did not accept my plea…saying that I may not speak of this anymore” (Deut. 3:26). Perhaps the rejection of both requests emanates from the same source, and it is Moses who is really blaming himself. Remember that when God had originally asked Moses to assume the leadership of the Israelites and take them out, the great prophet demurred, claiming to be “heavy of speech” (literally, kevad peh) (Ex. 4:10). And then the Bible testifies that “the [Israelites] did not listen to Moses [about leaving Egypt] because of impatience and difficult work” (6:9). Most commentators explain that the Hebrews were impatient and had no energy to resist their slavery; the hard work of servitude sapped their inner strength and prevented them from even dreaming about freedom. But Ralbag (1288–1344) explains this to mean that it was because of Moses’ impatience with his people (the Hebrews), because of his (Moses’) difficult work in making himself intellectually and spiritually close to the Divine.

Moses was into the “heavy talk” of communication with God and receiving the divine words. He did not have the interest or patience to get into the small talk, the necessary public relations of establishing personal ties and convincing Hebrew after Hebrew that it was worthwhile to rebel against Egypt and conquer the Land of Israel. He didn’t even have the patience to slowly and lovingly bring along his children and make them his deputies. He was a God-person, not a people-person, or even a family-person. He’s not blaming them, he is ultimately blaming himself. He spent his time communicating with God and receiving His divine words for all the generations; as a result, he sacrificed his ability to move his generation to accept God’s command to enter the Promised Land. A leader must join in the destiny of his people. If they could not enter the land, even if it was because of their own backsliding, he may not enter the land, because he did not succeed in inspiring them sufficiently well.

In the final analysis, why were these two prayers denied the greatest leader in Jewish history? Apparently, it is because the very source of Moses’ greatness – his lofty spirit and closeness to God – was what prevented him from getting down to the level of his congregation and family to lift them up. Moses succeeded like no one else before or after him in communicating God’s word for all future generations; but he did not do as well with his own generation. Hence his words are honest and very much to the point: “The Lord was angry at me because of you” – because I did not have sufficient time to deal with you on a personal level, to nurture and empower you until you were ready to accept God’s teachings and conquer the Promised Land.

In addition to all this, perhaps Moses’ requests were denied in order to teach us that no mortal, not even Moses, leaves this world without at least half of his desires remaining unfulfilled. And perhaps he was refused merely to teach us that no matter how worthy our prayer, sometimes the Almighty answers “No” and we must accept a negative answer. Faith, first and foremost, implies our faithfulness to God even though at the end of the day, He may refuse our request.

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