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Vaetchanan: "And I Beseeched God at that Time"

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Wishes of Happy Birthday and (with the help of Hashem)
a continued Refua Sheleima to Yehudah Lev ben Shifra

                              - His Children and Grandchildren


In honor of the birth of our son, Joseph Ira

                                      - Larry and Malkie Frank



"And I beseeched God at THAT TIME, saying: Oh God, Hashem, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your mighty hand; for what God is there in heaven or earth who can do anything like Your works and Your might. Let me, I beg You, cross over and see the good land over the Jordan, the goodly mountain and the Lebanon" (Deut. 3,23-24).


On the borders of his forty-year goal, Moshe, knowing that he has been denied entry into the promised land, begs God to overturn the decree, but is turned down (verse 25). Although allowed to VIEW the land, he will die and be buried outside its borders. Two questions arise: Why did Moshe make this request "at that time;" and, if we remember that the parasha is not the narrative of what happened in the desert but Moshe's speech to the Jews before his death, why is he retelling this episode now?


Our first task is to determine which time is "that time." Rashi makes the obvious assumption and places "that time" immediately after the occurrences of the previous verses - the military victories over Sichon and Og, the two kings who blocked the Jew's 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."


God's decree against Moshe was that he would not lead the Jews into the promised land. Moshe sees that he has succeeded in leading the Jews into the land of Sichon and Og, which is, in effect, annexed (given to the 2 1/2 tribes, as detailed at the end of last week's parasha) to the Land of Israel. This gives rise to the hope that perhaps, without telling him, God has changed His mind.


There are primarily two difficulties with this explanation. Firstly, there is really no reason to consider the land of Sichon and Og to be the "promised land" which God has declared to be off-bounds to Moshe. The land of Israel, as promised by God, was specifically bounded by the Jordan river (in Parashat Masei, Num. 34, AFTER they has already defeated Sichon and Og). Even as they camp on the plains of Moav, after the battle with Sichon and Og, both God and Moshe speak to the Jews as ABOUT to enter the promised land. While the EVENTUAL halakhic status of the Transjordan, after the Land had been conquered, is an interesting topic (it is considered to be part of the Land of Israel, with certain legal exceptions), there seems to be no question in the Torah that it was not the land "promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov," but was at best annexed to that land after the completion of the conquest. The war that Moshe fought was in principle no different than other battles fought in the desert, against Amalek (Ex. 18), and the Canaanites of Arad (Num. 21).


Secondly, if Moshe indeed thinks that he has already crossed the line demarcating the promised land from the desert, why does he "beseech?" Either the decree has already been repealed, in which case there is no problem, or it has not, in which case there is no cause for optimism at all. The verb for "beseech" (etchanan), is a very strong one, and is connected by the Sages with a root meaning "unmerited" (chinam), as it represents an appeal to God's mercy without any basis in merit or even logic.


(While I think these questions are pretty solid, I think that if we read Rashi carefully, we will see what he thinks the answer is. Rashi believes that the war with Sichon and Og is not a LOGICAL but a PSYCHOLOGICAL reason for Moshe's prayer. Logically, the argument is rather weak, as we explained. But psychologically, a military victory on the very borders of the Land of Israel cannot but raise Moshe's spirits, re-igniting his hopes to somehow complete the mission of his life. Rashi wrote that Moshe "imagined" that the decree had been lifted. I think the choice of verbs here is deliberate and indicates less than a rational thought process. To convert this irrational hope into reality requires "beseeching," something that Moshe perhaps would not have done had not the taste of the land been so strongly felt on his lips as he began to engage in the very same activity that would be required to conquer all of the land.)


The Ramban and others solve this problem by reinterpreting "at that time." They explain 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," this explanation becomes extremely difficult.


This phrase, "at that time," is repeated a number of times in Moshe's speech. The first time was at the very beginning of the speech (1,9). It appears again in 1,18. The past two times were just a few verses before our parasha, both clearly referring to after the war with Sichon and Og (3,18 and 3,21 - read the verses and continue into our parasha without stopping). There are other "timemarks" throughout Parashat Devarim (1,46; 2,13-14; 2,16). We get a clear impression that Moshe is very carefully laying out the sequence of events, emphasizing that each event followed the previous one, and placing different "sayings" of his within the framework of the great political events of the era.  If you have a series of events, each prefaced either with an indicator that it took place after a certain period of time, or "at that time," it seems clear that the chronological order is not only being preserved but is being emphasized. The conclusion is that the prayer of Moshe took place after the battles of Sichon and Og, as Rashi stated.


This is further strengthened by the opening of Moshe's prayer - and here we see the importance of noticing the exact choice of words in the Torah. Moshe states, "You have begun to show your servant Your greatness, and Your mighty hand...." The verb for "begun" is "hachilota" (commenced), not a particularly common form in the Torah. Just a few verses previously, before the onset of the battle against Sichon, God had said to Moshe, "See, I have begun (hachiloti) to give Sichon and his country to you..." (3,31). The parallelism between the two is clear - the war with Sichon was a commencement of the manifestation of God's greatness, and this is the object of Moshe's praise at the beginning of this week's parasha.


This brings us back to the questions we posed to Rashi - why should this event have caused Moshe to renew his supplication before God. A strikingly poignant answer is offered by the Abrabanel. (The Abrabanel was the leader of Spanish Jewry at the time of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and, together with several hundred thousand other Jews, was forced to leave his country, first to Portugal and later to Italy. I am not suggesting that this is related to his interpretation of these verses - but it is something to think about). He forces us to examine closely exactly what Moshe asks of God. "Let me, I beg you, cross over and see the good land over the Jordan, the goodly mountain and the Lebanon." The text of God's decree against Moshe had been, "Because you did not have faith in Me... therefore you shall not bring this congregation unto the land which I have given them" (Num. 20,12). Moshe is not asking for the annulment of the decree preventing him from LEADING the people into the land. He asks, as a personal request, that he be permitted to just SEE the good land, the good mountain (Zion), the object of his dreams for forty years. In the very last verse of the previous parasha, Moshe had reminded Joshua that he would be the leader who would lead the Jews into the land. Moshe has no illusions about that point. All he wants is that he be permitted, as a private individual, to partake, even a little, of the culmination of Jewish destiny. Surely that could be granted him.


The timing then is clear. Moshe has conquered the lands of Sichon and Og. More importantly, he has informed the 2 1/2 tribes that this land in which they are now found will be their inheritance. Jews are beginning, at least tentatively, to settle down. Joshua is groomed and ready to lead the Jews over the Jordan. Moshe can taste on his breath the air of the Land of Israel, and his yearnings to at least see this land of his dreams, of his fathers, of the sanctuary of the Holy Presence, is overwhelming. He begs, beseeches, God to let him cross over.


There are two parts to God's answer. The first is refusal. The second is a command to mount the heights overlooking the Jordan and SEE  the land, from afar, from end to end. God understands the personal yearning of Moshe and leads him to a point where he can indeed see the land. (The midrash states that Moshe was miraculously able to see the entire land; see 34,1-4.) But he cannot physically enter.


There are several explanations possible why Moshe was not permitted to enter, even as a private individual. One midrash states that God told him he could - but only if he indeed accepted Joshua's lordship, since there cannot be two figures of authority in Israel. Moshe found he could not do this. Another midrash states that if Moshe had entered, the Temple would have been built immediately and the messianic era would have been ushered in. The Rav, Rav Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik, has suggested that this expresses a principle that no man can ever have complete success, complete satisfaction. Man by definition must suffer defeat, even if it is one step from his total victory. Moshe climbs the heights of Moav and sees his dream, one short grasp of the hand away, but there he cannot come. If we summarize Moshe's life, it is apparent that he is responsible for teaching the Jewish people Torah - that is why his NAME is Moshe our teacher (Moshe rabbeinu). Joshua is totally responsible for the conquest of the land. This is indeed Moshe's own understanding - his comment of how God will not allow him to enter the land is followed by the conclusion of the first speech of the Book of Devarim - a long and eloquent reminder to the Jews that the Torah is the way of life for them, which must be observed exactly as "I have commanded you." His legacy and final command to the Jews is to remember the Torah and follow it. The sanctity of space, the presence of God on the holy mountain, must be left to someone else. One man cannot do it all, no matter how much his soul yearns to do so.



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