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Life Is Not a Game

V'etchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11 )

by Rabbi Yehoshua Berman

In this week's parsha, we find something that at first glance does not appear to be so astounding, but upon further contemplation, it actually emerges as one of the almost-shocking statements of the Torah.

"And I supplicated to Hashem at that time to say: Hashem Almighty, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, that who is [a] power in Heaven and in Earth that can do like Your acts and like Your [acts of] might. I will please go over and I will see the good Land that it is on the other side of the Jordan this the good mountain and the Levanon. And Hashem became filled with wrath against me on your account and He did not listen to me, and Hashem said to me, 'Enough for you - do not add to speak to Me further about this matter. Ascend to the top of the summit and lift up your eyes south, north, west, and east and see with your eyes because you will not cross over this Jordan. And command Yehoshua and strengthen Him and embolden him because he will go over before this nation and he will bring them to inherit the Land that you will see' " (Devarim 3:23-28).

In short, Moshe recounts for the Jewish People how he begged Hashem to rescind the decree barring him from entering the Land, and Hashem rejected his request.

Seems pretty straightforward and simple, right?

Well, yes and no. That it is straightforward is clear: Hashem refused to rescind the decree, period. That it is simple, though, is not readily so clear.

Let us recall exactly who it is that is making this request of Hashem: Moshe Rabbeinu, the supreme teacher of the entire Jewish People - the conduit through which we received the Torah and thereby became equipped to bring the entire universe to fulfillment of its entire purpose of creation.

Pretty impressive credentials, wouldn't you say?

Let us also remind ourselves of the numerous times that Moshe's prayers succeeded in saving the entire People from annihilation (e.g. by the Gold Calf and by the 12 spies) and that he put his own life on the line to bring about that success. Moshe Rabbeinu is the all-time, ultimate servant of Hashem and His People; the quintessential "zachah v'zikah es ha'rabim, one who acts supremely meritoriously and who also brings merit to the masses."

Imagine that you are unaware of the aforementioned verses and someone asked you if you think that Hashem will accede to Moshe's desperate plea to enter the Land. It seems reasonable to assume that the overwhelming majority of us would respond with a resounding, "Of course! All Moshe has to do is pray hard enough, and Hashem, Who is ever merciful and gracious, will certainly grant Moshe - who Hashem Himself testifies is "b'chol beisi neh'ehman"[1] - his heartfelt supplication." And, let's not forget, the only reason Moshe wanted so badly to go into Eretz Yisrael was so that he could fulfill the many mitzvos ha'tluyos ba'aretz, the commandments dependent upon the land. So, of course Hashem will grant such an altruistic, heartfelt request; right?

Well ... apparently not.

The fact is, as the aforementioned verses explicitly state, Hashem rejected Moshe's request and remained steadfast in His decree to bar him from entering the Land. Moshe had committed an aveirah, he received his punishment, and that's that! "Do not speak to Me about this issue any further!" said the Almighty. End of story, case closed - Moshe Rabbeinu remained unable to enter the Land.

Truly amazing!

What we must now ask ourselves is what eternal lesson are we to cull from this fact? What moral understanding are we to absorb from this episode?

What comes to mind is the statement of the Sages, quoted by the Ramchal in Mesilas Yesharim.[2] "Kol ha'omer Ha'Kadosh Baruch Hu vatran hu, yevasru mei'ohi, anyone who says that Hashem is a vatran, one who overlooks, will have his innards overlooked".

The Ramchal explains this based on the verse which says Hashem is just. Just as proper justice, explains the Ramchal, requires rewarding good deeds even to the minutest detail, so too does proper justice mandate that bad deeds be punished even to the minutest detail.

Yes, Hashem is merciful and He does not necessarily exact punishment immediately. He does indeed give a person time to do teshuvah. He is willing to accept a relatively small act of teshuvah as a kaparah (atonement) for the gargantuan act of committing an aveirah;[3] and even when necessary punishment is meted out, it is not commensurate with what the perpetrator truly deserves. Rather, the punishment is administered with a strong degree of restraint, as it were. But, that an evil act can go without any repercussion whatsoever - that is absolutely impossible. God is just, and justice demands a "settling of the score" - no matter which "score" is under question.

The upshot of all of this, in the terminology of Rav Yaakov Weinberg, is that life is real. God is not playing games with us.

Life is not a game - it is very, very real. We have free will and, as such, we are completely responsible for our actions; and our actions carry consequences, big consequences.

A parent who always bails his child out of any sticky situation that he gets himself into is crippling that child for life. That child is essentially going to grow up with the feeling that there really aren't any significant consequences in life. His head will be completely in the clouds; and his whimsical, lazy-do-whatever-he-feels-like-at-the-moment attitude about life will most probably lead him into a life of crime, in one form or another. He is completely lacking the tools and skills that one needs to navigate through the real world.

And, he will not enjoy life; because, as the saying goes, no pain, no gain. To succeed in life one needs to be responsible, put forth diligent effort, and accept accountability for one's actions or inaction. His crooked lifestyle will not only be morally corrupt and damaging to those with whom he comes into contact, it will also be one huge disappointment and misery for himself as well. So, being conditioned to treat life like a game is fundamentally in opposition to the individual's own best interests.

Hashem created a real world wherein one's life course has real consequences because that, and only that, is what will provide us with ultimate fulfillment. And it is solely for the purpose of giving us pleasure and fulfillment that God brought us into existence.

Of course, we pray to Hashem and we know that prayer is one of our most powerful tools to better our situation (besides being the key vehicle to developing our direct and immediate relationship with the Creator). Nevertheless, in realizing that it is not a game that we are playing with Hashem - nor is He playing with us - we are aware that His answer will sometimes be yes and sometimes be no.

So, then, the lesson we learn from Moshe's refused prayer is a very fundamental one indeed: Judaism is not a religion of "just believe and be saved" - oh no, not at all. The reason for this, of course, is that Judaism - the Torah - is not a game; rather it is the true reality of all existence. And it is that true reality that is the vehicle through which we are enabled and empowered to achieve that which we so badly want: success. Our actions - no matter how big or small - have real consequences, and it is both our obligation and greatest privilege to assume that real, empowering responsibility.


1. I.e. perfectly faithful.

2. Chap. 4.

3. One may ask, if so, certainly Moshe Rabbeinu's innumerable, heartfelt tefillos were enough of a teshuvah to merit clemency - so why was he refused? The answer is that we are not privy to cheshbonos Shamayim. We do not know why it is that sometimes Hashem seems to accept the teshuvah wholeheartedly, kavayachol, and at other times stands firm in His refusal to grant certain requests. The fact, though, that we do see that the Torah records examples of the latter - even regarding our greatest, historical figures - teaches us this important yesod that we must approach life and our relationship with Hashem with a healthy dose of seriousness and maturity.

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