This week’s portion, ואתחנן – Vaetchanan, which means “and I implored,” seems to begin in the middle of nowhere. Following the description in the end of the previous portion of how the Jewish people decimated the two strongest kings and their nations, Sichon, king of the Emori, and Og, king of Bashan, Moshe is telling the Jewish people how he implored Hashem for permission to enter the Land of Israel and that Hashem denied his request. Moshe used these miraculous victories to give Yehoshua, his successor, moral support by telling him that the nations in the land of Israel will be just as easy to conquer. He told Yehoshua, “You have nothing whatsoever to fear, for Hashem will be fighting your battles for you, just as He did here.”
At that juncture, Moshe thought that it would be appropriate to once again entreat Hashem for permission to enter the Land of Israel. Why specifically then?
The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser 1809-1879) explains that when Moshe sinned by hitting the rock, Hashem told Moshe that he would not bring the Jewish people into the Land of Israel. Moshe understood this to mean that as the leader, the one to bring the Jewish people into Israel, he would not be allowed to enter, but, as a private citizen, he could. Since after those wars, Moshe had handed leadership over to Yehoshua, Moshe’s request to Hashem was, “Since I am no longer the leader of the Jewish nation, please let me enter the land as a private citizen.”
Feeling that it would be inappropriate for Moshe to be subservient to his student Yehoshua, Hashem refused Moshe’s request. Moreover, Moshe would gain all that he aspired to achieve in Israel through just looking at it, and therefore he did not actually need to go in.
Our Sages teach us that Moshe prayed to Hashem to be allowed to enter the land of Israel 515 times, the numeric value of the letters of the wordואתחנן . (6+1+400+8+50+50=515). In his capacity as the leader of the Jewish people, Moshe had prayed on their behalf many times and had secured forgiveness for them. His prayers were extremely powerful. He had also visited heaven for a total of 120 days and knew his way around the heavenly spheres. He knew exactly where to direct his prayers to achieve the greatest results. It is easy to imagine how powerful and intense each of those prayers to Hashem was.
Yet, Hashem told Moshe (Deuteronomy 3:26):
ספר דברים פרק ג
רַב לָךְ אַל תּוֹסֶף דַּבֵּר אֵלַי עוֹד בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה
“It is enough for you; do not continue to speak to me Me further about this matter.”
The Midrash elaborates:
“Don’t ask me again. If you do, I will have to give in, and it is not right that you enter the land even as a private citizen. Besides, I will grant you all the spiritual growth that you wish to achieve from doing the mitzvot of the Land of Israel just by looking at the land.
The Midrash next tells us a perplexing thing:
מדרש רבה דברים – פרשה יא פסקה י
אמר משה לפני הקב”ה: רבש”ע אם אין אתה מכניס אותי לא”י הניח אותי כחיות השדה שהן אוכלין עשבים ושותין מים וחיין ורואין את העולם כך תהא נפשי כאחת מהן א”ל רב לך אמר לפניו רבש”ע ואם לאו הניח אותי בעולם הזה כעוף זה שהוא פורח בכל ארבע רוחות העולם ומלקט מזונו בכל יום ולעת הערב חוזר לקנו כך תהא נפשי כאחת מהן אמר לו רב לך
Moshe told Hashem, “Master of the Universe, if You are not going to let me into the Land of Israel, leave me alive as one of the animals of the field who eat grass and drink water and live to see the world; please let me be like one of them!” Hashem responded, “You have enough!” Moshe then said, “Master of the Universe, if not, leave me in the world like a bird that flies all over to gather its food every day and then returns to its nest. Can’t I be like one of them?” Once again Hashem responded, “You have enough!”
What was Moshe’s thinking in wanting to be like an animal or a bird? What benefit would the Land of Israel have from another animal eating grass and drinking water or from a bird flying around?
Harav Eliezer Menachem Shach זצ”ל (1899-2001) explains. Every creation on this earth testifies to the brilliance and genius of Hashem, its creator. The Malbim explains that פרק שירה , the “Chapter of Song” that the world and all the creatures in it “sing” to Hashem composed by King David and his son King Solomon, aren’t actually singing to Hashem. Rather, their miraculous essence speaks volumes about the splendor of their Creator and thus evokes the most beautiful song of praise to Hashem by the observer. Therefore, Moshe wanted to continue his life of praise to Hashem in a different form, that of an animal or a bird that would testify to Hashem’s greatness and bring forth a song of praise for Hashem from people. It is truly wonderous to observe the grace of a bird flying effortlessly, riding the breezes.
The Malbim further explains that this is what we are referring to when we say in אשרי (Ashrei) (Psalms 145:4)
דּוֹר לְדוֹר יְשַׁבַּח מַעֲשֶֹיךָ. וּגְבוּרֹתֶיךָ יַגִּידוּ
4) From generation to generation they will praise Your handiwork, and Your greatness they will tell.
As science discovers more and more of Hashem’s miraculous creatures and how they live, they will increase their praise for Hashem and speak of His greatness.
To this request, Hashem also responded, “You have enough!” Moshe had reached the end of his time on the world. He had completed his mission on the earth, and now it was time to move on. And he had had a great run! He probably had the greatest run possible, because he brought and taught the Torah to the Jewish people for all eternity, and any Torah ever learned is a credit to him.
When Hashem responded to Moshe He said, “do not continue to speak to me Me further about this matter.” What is behind Hashem silencing Moshe and prohibiting him from praying further about the matter?
The Sages explain that, as noted, Hashem was telling Moshe that he had reached the point where if he were to ask one more time, Hashem would have to let him into the land of Israel. But, because it is not the best thing for him to enter and it will cause all kinds of complications for the Jewish people, Hashem directed Moshe not to ask again. Moshe relented.
We learn a great lesson from this. We see that even though Hashem had decreed that Moshe would not enter the Land of Israel, prayer could have overturned that decree! There was a magic number of prayers – 516 – that were required to achieve that, and had Moshe said just one more prayer, Hashem would have let him in. Prayer is so powerful it can even overturn a decree from Hashem.
This echoes what our Sages have taught us in the following passage (Tractate Berachot 32b):
תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף לב/ב
אמר רבי חנין אמר רבי חנינא כל המאריך בתפלתו אין תפלתו חוזרת ריקם
Rabbi Chanin in the name of Rabbi Chanina said. “Whoever prays for a long time, his prayer will never be returned empty handed.”
When we continuously pray for something, every prayer makes an impression and is accomplishing something towards our request; however, more are needed to break through. It is like chopping down a tree. With every swing of the axe, a chip is removed from the tree and headway is made towards felling it. It may take many blows and many chips before the tree falls, but every single one brings that moment a little closer.
Similarly, every prayer brings our request closer to fulfillment. We don’t know, however, how thick the tree is and how many blows are necessary. This is one way that our prayers on behalf of others help their cause. Each of our prayers contributes to the number of prayers necessary to rescind the decree and thus the threshold may be reached. We must never give up on prayer because each one has an impact. We just need to pray more.
A second way that our prayers help others is that through our prayers we connect to Hashem in the deepest way. When we beseech Hashem for something, we are saying to Him, “Hashem, I come to You because you are the only source of salvation! I have no other option.” This complete trust in Hashem is the essence of our relationship with Him. And because the sick person for whom we are praying was the catalyst that caused the ones who prayed to do so with sincerity, thus bringing them closer to Hashem, he accrues for this great merit. For there is no greater merit than bringing Jews closer to Hashem.
The שלה הקדוש – Shelah Hakadosh (Rabbi Isaiah b”r Abraham haLevi Horowitz 1560-1630) gives a second reason why someone’s prayers may go unanswered. Sometimes what we seek, thinking it’s the best thing for us, is really the worst. Therefore, Hashem, Who knows this, withholds the fulfillment of our request for our own benefit. Just as with Moshe, where the fulfillment of his request would not have been good for the Jewish people, so Hashem did not grant Moshe permission to enter the Land of Israel. It would also seem from the story of Moshe that if a person persisted enough in prayer, he would be able to push Hashem into giving them something that is not good for them. We see that after 516 prayers, Moshe would have succeeded even though it was not what Hashem felt would be the best outcome. This is a scary thought.
Based on this, the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen Kagan 1839-1933) says that a person should not ask Hashem for a specific thing since he does not know if it is good for him or not. Rather he should ask in general. “Hashem you know what is good for me, so please provide me with what I need.”
Our Sages tell us that we really need prayer for everything good that we require, and that a person was created to pray. This is because Hashem wants to have a relationship with us. We see this clearly from the punishment Hashem gave the snake. (Genesis 3:14)
ספר בראשית פרק ג
יד) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקִים אֶל הַנָּחָשׁ כִּי עָשִׂיתָ זֹּאת אָרוּר אַתָּה מִכָּל הַבְּהֵמָה וּמִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה עַל גְּחֹנְךָ תֵלֵךְ וְעָפָר תֹּאכַל כָּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ
14) And Hashem said to the snake, “Because you have done this accursed are you beyond all the cattle and beyond all beasts of the field. Upon your belly you shall go, and dust shall you eat all the days of your life.”
Rabbi Yossi in the Talmud makes an interesting observation (Tractate Yoma 75b):
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יומא דף עה/א
תניא אמר רבי יוסי בוא וראה שלא כמדת הקדוש ברוך הוא מדת בשר ודם מדת בשר ודם מקניט את חבירו יורד עמו לחייו אבל הקדוש ברוך הוא אינו כן קלל את הנחש עולה לגג מזונותיו עמו יורד למטה מזונותיו עמו
Rabbi Yossi said. “Look how different Hashem’s qualities are from those of a human being. If someone angers a human being, he tries to have him killed. Not so Hashem. He cursed the snake and wherever he goes he has a meal. If he goes up to the roof he has his food, and if he comes down to the ground he has his food.
How is this a punishment? The snake has it made in the shade! The answer is that Hashem is telling the snake, “I want to have nothing to do with you. I don’t ever want to see you again.” This may be compared to a son who gave his parents only trouble. The father gave his son a credit card and said, “Get out of here! I never want to see you again. Anything you need, put it on the credit card, but don’t bother me for anything!”
The reason that Hashem wants us to pray to Him is because He wants a relationship with us. In this way we have to come to Him for our needs, and we build our trust in Him.
There is a very cool hint to the notion that a person was created to pray.
Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has both a revealed component and a hidden component. For example, in the letter אלף א , is the revealed component, while the ל ף , which complete the word אלף , are the hidden components. If you take the word אדם , which means “man” and spell out each of its letters, revealing their hidden components, the hidden letters אדם spell מתפלל , which means “one who prays.”
This should give us all great incentive to pray for all that we need. Hashem wants to fulfill our wishes and is just waiting to hear our prayers. Our prayers to Him strengthens our relationship with Him and thus fosters new and more fervent prayers.