Parashat Vaetchanan

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT VAETCHANAN

 

 

A.           INTRODUCTION

 

Our parasha concludes Moshe Rabbeinu’s historical overview with his recollection of his heartfelt pleas to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel, and Hashem’s unrelenting refusal:

 

23 And I besought Hashem at that time, saying:

24 'O Hashem, You hast begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can do according to Your works, and according to Your mighty acts?

25 Let me go over, I pray you, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.'

26 But Hashem was wroth with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me; and Hashem said unto me: 'Let it suffice you; speak no more unto Me of this matter.

27 Get up to the top of Pisgah, lift up your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan.

28 But charge Joshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him; for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you shall see.'

 

The Abrabanel begins his interpretation to this section with twenty-seven separate questions.  In this week’s shiur, we shall raise several of his questions, all focused on one central issue – how are we to understand Moshe’s mention of his desire to the land at this point in time in his speech?  His addresses in Sefer Devarim serve many purposes – reviewing the history of the people and their mistakes, ensuring that the people fully grasp the nature of the commandments and their relationship with Hashem, and renewing the covenant one final time before entering the land.  Why here does Moshe choose to retell this interaction, especially one that apparently ends so badly for him? What purpose does it serve within the overall scheme of Sefer Devarim?

 

 

B.           QUESTIONS

 

From the questions posed by the Abrabanel, we shall begin with the issue of time.  Moshe introduces this section with the words “AT THAT TIME”.  When precisely did this request and refusal take place?   According to Rashi, this interaction occurred immediately after the occurrences of the previous verses - the military victories over Sichon and Og, the two kings who blocked the Jews' advance to the Jordan river from the east (2,31-3,22). Rashi explains:

 

"At that time: After I captured the land of Sichon and Og, I imagined that perhaps the decree had been annulled."

 

Since Hashem originally decreed that Moshe would not lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael, the fact that he was successful in conquering the areas on the other side of the Jordan, areas that would eventually be  annexed to the Land, must have led him to entertain the possibility that Hashem had relented.

 

Commentators raise several objections to Rashi’s interpretation.  We can summarize the major objection to his view as follows:  the eventual annexation of the Transjordan after the land of Israel proper did not grant it the status of the land that was "promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov".  Clearly, the promised land was specifically bounded by the Jordan river (see Bemidbar 34).  More importantly, even after the battle with Sichon and Og, as they camp on the plains of Moav, both God and Moshe speak to the Jews as being on the verge of entering Eretz Yisrael.

 

Clearly, Rashi understood these issues.  Instead, we sense that Rashi is trying to explain not the logical reasoning behind Moshe’s request, but the psychological framework that underlay it.  As we showed, the argument is logically very weak.  From a psychological standpoint, however, the military victory over two chieftains, on the very borders of the Land of Israel, could not but reignite Moshe’s hopes and desires.  For this reason, we understand Rashi’s wording that Moshe “imagined” that the decree had been annulled. 

 

Other commentators attempt to reinterpret “AT THAT TIME” by explaining that it refers to a PREVIOUS time, namely, immediately after God's decree (forty years earlier). This neatly explains the timing of the prayer of Moshe, but strengthens the second question we asked above - why is Moshe mentioning this now in his speech? If we examine the occurrence of the phrase "at that time," which repeats itself a number of times in Moshe's speech, this explanation becomes extremely difficult.  The clear impression of these repetitions is that Moshe is very carefully laying out the sequence of events, preserving their chronological order. However, clearly Moshe’s use of the phrase “AT THAT TIME” serves to place some distance between his present listeners and the event being recalled, by providing a perspective shaped by time.  Returning to our main question – what is Moshe trying to impart by the retelling here?

 

 

C.           WHAT WAS MOSHE REQUESTING

 

To understand the lesson that Moshe was trying to convey, we have to analyze an apparent lacuna in his words.  Reading again verses 24 and 25, we note the following:

 

24 'O Hashem, You hast begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can do according to Your works, and according to Your mighty acts?

25 Let me go over, I pray you, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill-country, and Lebanon.'

 

How does verse 24 which consists solely of descriptions of Hashem’s actions, serve as the rationale for granting Moshe’s request in verse 25?  What connection do the two verses have?  According to rabbinic tradition, there is no inherent connection. Instead, these verses are brought as the prooftext that “A man should always order his prayer before the Omnipresent, so that he recites the praises of the Holy One and then places his requests before Him” (TB Berakhot 32a).  However, the traditional commentators attempted to find within verse 24 possible rationales for Moshe’s request.

 

In an interpretation that he labels as “derash,” Rashi suggests that the greatness that Hashem had begun to show Moshe was not the list of miracles previously mentioned, but His kindness and merciful behavior at the episode of the Golden Calf.  As such, Moshe is arguing that just as there, Hashem was willing to rescind a negative decree, here too, by demonstrating His merciful nature before the people, the act of forgiving Moshe resulted in His name being magnified among the people.  The Ramban suggests an even earlier placement of when Moshe began to be shown God’s greatness – at the burning bush.  Just as there, Hashem was willing to appear before Moshe despite the fact that Moshe was not worthy, so too, argues the Ramban, Moshe is pleading before Hashem to allow him to enter despite his unworthiness.

 

We will conclude with the words of the Seforno, who brings a new twist to Moshe’s request that we will examine thematically:

 

Your strong hand – to alter the forces of nature which none but You can do.  Now all this You did in order to bring Israel into the land of Canaan, and therefore it is fitting that I attempt to secure their residence in it.

Let me please cross over – to destroy all the inhabitants of Canaan, so that Israel will not be exiled from it.

 

According to the Seforno, Moshe’s request to “see” the land is not just to see visually in the usual sense, but to effect influence upon Israel’s residence in the land.  Just as Moshe’s period as leader of the Jewish people was noted for the miracles that Hashem performed for the people’s behalf, so too Moshe hopes that by receiving permission to enter the Land, he would be able to extend the miraculous relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people into their residence in the land.   With his presence in Israel, the people’s permanent residence would be assured.

 

With this understanding, we can appreciate why Moshe chose to retell his request now in Sefer Devarim.  In the following chapter, Moshe warns the people of the dangers that will accompany living in the land.  Without Hashem’s immanent presence, the pitfall of idolatry will grow slowly and steadily, until the people stumble.  No longer will they be the recipients of the constant kindnesses, including the man, the well, and the safety from natural dangers (snakes and scorpions) that accompanied them throughout the desert.  This is the message that Moshe wishes to convey to his nation.  His demise is not just the end of his life, but a period in time that protected them from physical and spiritual dangers.  Now, at the edge of the land promised to their fathers, they must prepare themselves for the challenges that lie ahead.