This week’s Parashah, Va-et’chanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) begins: Va-et’chanan el Adonai ba-eit ha-hi leimor…“I pleaded with God at that time, saying…” (3:23+)
Rashi asked why should the first word of the verse and parashah be Va-et’chanan (“I pleaded”) and not Va-et’palel (“I prayed”)? He explained that Va-et’chanan comes from the root chanan and suggests that Moses was asking for a gift from God that he knew he didn’t deserve or merit, but he wanted it badly; indeed, he yearned to enter the Promised Land which he had forfeited as a consequence of his earlier defiance of God.
Moses’ pleading is particularly shocking when we consider the spiritual pre-eminence of the man. He was after all the greatest of the prophets, the only one who spoke panim el panim, face to face with God, the great liberator who led the people out of Egypt, the law-giver who received the Torah at Sinai, and the guide who led the people to the edge of the Promised Land.
Such yearning is understandable, and anyone who has ever suffered any kind of loss or extreme disappointment knows the feeling.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev offers, relative to the opening words of the parashah, an important insight into Moses’ state of mind. This great Chassidic Master didn’t believe that God actually punished Moses by not granting the prophet’s fervent request to enter the Promised Land. Rather, Levi Yitzhak placed the onus of Moses’ exile on Moses himself because his spiritual orientation wasn’t quite right, and he, Moses, was responsible for his own condition, not God.
Rebbe Yitzhak came to this conclusion because at the end of the first verse appears the word leimor which he believed was a superfluous addition included to emphasize that what would follow are words from God, but what preceded were from Moses – “I pleaded with God at that time, leimor – (i.e. saying)…” This was the only time in Moses’ long career that he felt the need for Divine assistance in his prayer, and so he turned to God in the language of pleading – va-et’chanan – begging the Eternal One to put words in his throat as God had done so many times before and be near him.
Va-et’chanan (I plead) is the language of exile, and that it introduces the Torah portion this week, only days following Tisha B’Av, is not an accident. For Tisha B’Av is the holyday that recalls the pain of our people’s destruction, loss and exile, our separation from God, from the land, and even God’s exile from God’s Divine self. The Destruction of the two Temples were national catastrophes to the Jewish people without parallel until their time.
Our yearning this week as a people with time and with the assistance of t’shuvah (and we begin to look forward to Elul and the Days of Awe even now), is the challenge before Moses and before our people in these days following Tisha B’Av. This is also an opportunity for transformation, healing and renewed hope.
Chazak v’eimatz. May we be strong and courageous! Shabbat Shalom!