Moshe Rabbeinu begins Parshas Va’eschanan by describing for the Jewish nation his unsuccessful plea to Hashem to allow him to enter Israel. When, in Parshas Chukas, Moshe failed to follow Hashem’s instructions – hitting the stone to bring forth its waters instead of coercing it with words – Hashem had punished him, promising he would not enter the Holy Land together with his nation. Here, Moshe describes how he pleaded with Hashem for “one more chance,” yet was refused. Moshe then relates how, in his stead, Hashem commanded him to appoint Yehoshua as the new leader of the Jewish nation.
Two questions come to mind: 1) Why does Moshe publicly reveal his unsuccessful negotiations with Hashem? Certainly there were many other private conversations between Hashem and himself that he chose not to disclose. The fact that he chose to do so here must mean there is something in it for us to learn. 2) How does Hashem’s refusal of his prayer relate to giving over the leadership mantle to Yehoshua?
Rashi notes that the word va’eschanan is one of ten possible Hebrew terms for prayer. Why did Moshe make use of this particular type of prayer? Va’eschanan comes from the root Chanan – to grant favour. This, Rashi explains, is the way of the righteous and truly humble: Their requests of Hashem are those of one seeking an undeserved favour. They do not demand that their request be granted. They don’t try to “force Hashem’s hand” by reminding Him of all the good they’ve done, and asking for one little favour in return. They ask, simply, for Chinun – grace and favour to one who has done nothing to deserve it.
There is an expression in Yiddish: Es kumt mir – I deserve it. The word “deserve” is a powerful word: “You deserve a vacation!” “I deserve a raise!” “We deserve a good meal!” It is a word often used with a sense of indignation: “He deserves better than that!”
The righteous, though they likely deserve that their prayers be answered more than we do, never see it that way. They never say to Hashem: Es kumt mir chotch azoi fil – At least this much I deserve! They stand before Hashem in prayer, and ask for no more than an unearned kindness.
This brings to mind a story I heard from a good friend, a Holocaust survivor. His brother, who was a chosson (engaged to be married), had received his shtreimel (a customary chassidic fur hat worn on Shabbos) from his mechutan (future father-in-law). It was, shall we say, not quite what he had hoped for. Not that it was terrible; he had just hoped for something more elegant – perhaps darker, thicker, straighter, more regal. His mechutan, after all, was a man of means. He could afford to buy a shtreimel fit for kings! He felt he deserved better. He expressed to his father, an erudite Talmudic scholar, his disappointment. “My son,” he said, “if this is what you got – I guess it’s all you deserved.”
If we take the time to consider it, there’s plenty of room for Moshe to feel indignant about Hashem’s refusal to allow him into the Land of Israel. Was it not he who had, at great personal risk, left his comfortable environs to journey to Egypt. For forty years, he had faithfully led his less-than-faithful flock through the ravages of the wilderness. And now – this! Because of one relatively minor slip-up, he would not be allowed to complete his mission!
Imagine you’ve been a cautious driver your whole life. You never speed, come to complete stops at every stop sign, always slow for yellow lights; the whole bit. Once, in a moment of absentmindedness, a cop clocks you going 5 kilometres over the limit. And he throws the book at you! He writes up a hefty ticket. And then, to your shock, he tears up your licence. “You won’t be needing this any more – I’ve suspended your licence… permanently.” “But officer…”
What was it that allowed Moshe to accept Hashem’s seemingly unreasonable decree with such equanimity? It is the answer to this question, which much certainly have been on the minds, if not the lips, of his generation, that he comes to teach them here. Va’eschanan – And I asked for a favour. I never said: Es kumt mir! There was no tit-for-tat; no haggling, bartering, or extortionate contract negotiations. I asked for a completely undeserved favour. My request was refused. That’s ok too – I never expected more.
It is normally a painful experience to witness one’s greatness being torn away and given to someone else – not something for those with delicate egos. All the more so in this case, where Moshe had hoped that perhaps one of his sons would “continue the family tradition” and be granted the leadership of Israel. It was this sense of deserving nothing, of extreme gratitude and thanksgiving to Hashem for the years he had been able to lead the nation, that allowed him so wholeheartedly to endorse a new leader not of his own blood. Perhaps this is why the Torah describes Moshe’s unsuccessful prayer and the leadership transfer in one paragraph: It was the way Moshe reacted to Hashem’s refusal, his tranquil acceptance of whatever Hashem saw fit to grant him, that allowed him to gladly relinquish his position and prepare the nation for the coming years, of which he would be no part.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 45:6) relates the following:
Moshe once asked to see the reward of the righteous. “This chamber,” Hashem showed him, “is the reward for those who care for orphans. And this – for those who scrupulously guard the mitzvos.” Then, Moshe saw a tremendous chamber, far greater than all the rest. “For whom is this chamber?” he asked. “Those who deserve reward,” Hashem answered, “will be rewarded from the appropriate chamber. Those who deserve nothing – I will grant them from here.”
The question is obvious: Why is the chamber of those who deserve nothing far greater than the chambers of those who deserve? Perhaps what Hashem meant to say was the following: Those who feel they deserve something for all their hard work, will be granted their appropriate reward. But those who, after all their effort and self- sacrifice (mesirus nefesh), feel they deserve nothing – for them I have set aside a special chamber of reward far greater than for those who feel they deserve!
Living in a society which so actively promotes and demands “rights” – human rights, animal rights, right-of-way etc. – it is easy to let this attitude seep into our relationship with Hashem; we deserve more, better, fairer… Moshe Rabbeinu’s lesson, which he payed with his life to teach us, is that we deserve nothing. To accept with grace what G-d, in His kindness, sees fit to give us; whether more, less, or different than what we had expected or hoped for.
Have a good Shabbos.