Va’eschanan is a jam packed Torah Portion. There’s shema, which includes the mitzvahs of loving God, wrapping tefillin, and mezzuzah. There’s the retelling of 10 Commandments and the whole revelation of Sinai. There are the cities of refuge, instructions about settling the Land of Israel, and more. In terms of Torah 101, I can’t think of another parsha that checks more boxes.
But there is one troubling thing that sticks out right at the forefront. Moses, in the midst of his book-spanning diatribe, relates to the Jews that he prayed his heart out to Hashem to let him enter the Land of Israel but ultimately was denied. It’s a depressing notion given that God is supposed to be “forgiving of iniquity” who “frequently withdraws His anger.”
Keep in mind, Moses wasn’t wanting some beach front property in Tel Aviv, he wanted to go do all the mitzvahs that could only be performed in the land. The mitzvah of the first fruits, cultivating the land, seeing the Beis HaMikdash built. He wanted to serve Hashem more! Why couldn’t God just let Moses’ sin go?
The Midrash says Moses prayed 515 times to enter the land and at that point God tells Moses to stop praying.
A full and devoted out pouring of the heart is what our connection to God is supposed to be all about. Why would God turn away from that? Now the Rabbis say that Moses had so much merit that if he prayed one more time, God would have had to let him in and that would have been disasterous.
I’m not going to try to answer how Moses’ prayers could “make” God do anything. But suffice it to say there’s something deep going on there about the power of prayer.
The Spirit Vs The Letter
There’s another interesting moment later in the parsha. After Moses says we should follow all the mitzvahs, he tells the Jewish people, “And you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of Hashem.” (Devarim 6:18) Why does he need to say that? Aren’t the mitzvahs by default right and good?
There’s a Mishna (Sotah 20a) that describes an exceedingly pious individual (known as a Chasid Shoteh). The Chasid Shoteh is so pious then one day he sees a woman drowning but because he doesn’t want to transgress the sin of shomer negia (touching) or tznius (immodest dress), he doesn’t save her. The gemara calls this individual foolishly pious and even labels him the “destroyer of the world.”
Clearly the Chasid Shoteh has missed the whole point. A person can follow the letter of the laws of Torah 100% and still be a scumbag. Torah isn’t about simply following laws, it’s about refining character, improving the world, and connecting to Hashem. So to emphasize this, God tells Moses to do “that which is right and good in His eyes”. Go above and beyond, learn nuance, search for deeper understandings, and push yourself to grow.
So what does this have to do with Moses being told to cease his prayer?
Moses was barred from entering Israel because he hit a rock in anger back in parshas Chukas. At that moment, he was supposed to speak to said rock to get water and that event would somehow sanctify God’s Name, what is known as a Kiddish Hashem. (See Rashi on Bamidbar 20:12)
But if God forgave Moses, his greatest servant, wouldn’t that be a Kiddish Hashem? To instill in the Jewish people that if you work and elevate yourself, God will help you and forgive?
But here’s the thing. Deep down, all of us think we’re deserving of special treatment. We think we’re different. That God understands our unique situations. We might be making mistakes now, but when push comes to shove, it either doesn’t really matter or sooner or later we’ll fix ourselves. Right now I’m splurging on cake and not working out, but after the holidays it’s back to being serious… which is what I said last year.
But if God holds MOSES accountable, that there’s a line that Moses can cross, well then we might just have some pause about our procrastination. I believe Moses realized that and understood the Jewish people needed to know that if he wouldn’t be given a pass, they might take their mission more seriously. By realizing that being denied entrance to the land would do more good and acceding, he ended up sanctifying Gods name the way he was supposed to at the rock. So for keeping the letter of the law, you’re supposed to pray for whatever you want. But when you trust that God might know better, then you realize maybe the things you want are not a good thing to pray for. That’s living the spirit of the law.
This blog posted is dedicated to the refuah shelma of Yoel ben Gabi and Yael bas Gabi. If you would like to help two very special infants beat Canavan Disease please go here.