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The Prayer of Moses

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

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Parshat V'Etchanan contains some of the most important teachings of Judaism. Here we find the Ten Commandments taught for the second time. Here we find the Sh'ma, "Hear O Israel," the quintessential declaration of monotheism.

These ideas, together with lengthy instructions from Moses, make for a Torah portion which stands out as for its concentration of spiritual teachings and content.

It begins with Moses recounting for the people the dialogue which he had with God:

'And I pleaded with God at that time saying, "...Please allow me to go over and see the good land which is beyond the Jordan, the goodly mountain region, the Lebanon..."' (Deut. 3:23-25)

Moses had asked God to rescind the decree and to allow him to cross the River Jordan with the people. God rejects this request, as Moses relates:

'But God was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me, and God said to me, "Enough for you! Speak no more to me on this matter."' (Deut. 3:26)

Moses was told that he should not even attempt to continue his prayers, for the matter was sealed. Rather, Moses should take solace in God's offer for him to see the land from afar:

'Go on top of the peak and lift up your eyes, westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold with your eyes, for you will not cross this Jordan.' (Deut. 3:27)

Moses had his prayer rejected. And it was not one prayer, but many. The Sages teach that Moses had offered 515 different prayers, but one and all were rejected.


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This concept of Moses having his prayers rejected is not an easy one for us to understand. How can it be that Moses, the father of all prophets, could not get his prayers answered?

How can it be that Moses, the father of all prophets, could not get his prayers answered?

Furthermore, if Moses cannot be allowed to repent and have his decree altered, then what does the future bode for those who have not reached, nor can they even imagine, his level.

There are various approaches to this issue in Talmudic, and Midrashic literature. The Talmud understands that Moses' prayers did have an effect:

Rabbi Eliezer taught: "Prayer is greater than good deeds, for there was never a man who had better deeds than Moses our Master, nonetheless, Moses was only answered as a result of his prayer, for it says, 'Enough for you! Speak no more to me on this matter' and right afterward it says 'Go on top of the peak...' (Talmud Brachot 32b)

The Talmud clearly understands that Moses' prayer were effective, albeit not as effective as Moses would have desired. The implication is clear, had Moses not prayed then he would not have climbed the peak and seen the land. Moses did have his prayers answered, but it was not exactly the answer which Moses had sought.

But why could Moses not achieve complete rehabilitation for his mistakes?


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Another approach is that prayers can only be effective until the final judgment has been decreed; at that point prayers cannot cancel the decree.

This is based on a passage of the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) which explains why at times prayers "work," and why at times they do not seem to. The Sefer Chasidim (section 612, citing Rav Saadya Gaon) explains that Moses' prayers were rejected, because his judgment had been finalized. This idea dovetails with a number of teachings of the Sages, which indicate that once this judgment was final nothing more can be said by Moses. (See Avot d'Rebbi Natan addition 2 to chapter 4.)

It seems then that there is point where repentance is no longer effective.

Why would God have told Moses that he need not pray?

Rabbi Reuven Margoliot in his notes to the Sefer Chasidim, cites a teaching from the Zohar which states that this is true in terms of this world, but as far as the next world goes, repentance can change one's status (Zohar Mishpatim 107a).

If this is the case, then why would God have told Moses that he need not pray? Rashi in his comments to the Torah addresses the point in the Torah narrative when God says Rav Lach! "Enough for you!" Rashi translates rav lach literally -- rav "a lot," lach, "awaits you" -- and then goes on to explain:

[This means] "there is a lot of good awaiting you," therefore Moses need not pray anymore for his share in the other world.

The Sifri offers a completely different approach. According to the Sifri, Moses did not heed God's request and continued to pray:

[Moses] did not adhere to God, and did not desist from asking mercy from the Holy One blessed be He. Other people should certainly never [give up and not pray] ... Even if a sharp blade is on a person's neck, they should not cease to ask for mercy. (Sifri D'varim piska 29)


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Again, according to this approach our previous questions resurface: Why did Moses' prayers go unanswered, and furthermore, why would God discourage Moses from further prayer?

In order to answer these questions, we must re-evaluate what prayer is and what are its spiritual dynamics.

When a person is ill, he turns to God in prayer. If the prayer is accepted by God, then the person recovers. Superficially, it seems as if God changed His mind, as if God can be "sweet talked" into backing down from a previously stated position, so to speak. It also seems as if God awaits in heaven for our words of supplication, and, if they do not arrive, He wreaks His vengeance on us.

Furthermore, we are aware that God is an infinite Being who is by definition unchanging; if this is the case, then how can God "change his mind"?

The answer is subtle, yet simple. God does not change. Man does.

The reason one falls ill is because he has not prayed -- forged a relationship with God.

The man who fell ill was relatively alienated from God. The man who prays is a man who is close to God -- he is not the same man who fell ill. He has forged a new relationship with God, but God remains unchanged. Man often believes that the reason that he prays is that he is ill; what he does not understand is that the reason he is ill is because he has not prayed, or searched for a complete relationship with God. Now that he has prayed he no longer needs to be ill.

Let us consider Moses. Was his angst due to some type of spiritual deficiency? The answer is of course not! Moses reached the most exalted status which man can ever dream of. He was not spiritually lacking, his prayers were no longer necessary. This idea is conveyed in the Zohar:

Rav Chiya said: "God said to Moses 'It is enough that you have been united with the Shechina -- you can advance no further.'" (Zohar D'varim 260b)

Moses was unlike other people, there was nothing lacking in Moses' spiritual makeup, therefore nothing needed to be healed. Moses did not need to pray.

Even Moses' share in the world to come was assured, as we saw in Rashi above. If we take this idea one step further, then we will gain great insight into the rest of this Torah portion.


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From the Sforno we get the following teaching:

[Moses said:] "But God was angry with me for your sakes: For I desired to keep you there (in Israel), so that you would never be exiled. But He (God) had already lifted up His arm to disperse you among the nations." (Sforno 3:26)

According to the Sforno, the object of Moses' prayer was not his own spiritual well-being, it was the future of the community -- Moses was motivated by a profound concern for his people.

This leads us to an astounding conclusion: Moses' remaining in exile was not due to a lack in him. It was caused by the relatively low spiritual level of his people.

We have seen on other occasions that had Moses entered into the Land of Israel, the Temple never would have been destroyed, and Moses would have been the Messiah. The only problem was that the people were unworthy.

The Sforno insists that this decree had already been made: "He (God) had already lifted up His arm to disperse you among the nations." The obvious question which then emerges is: When did this decree come into existence? One possibility is that it happened during the Golden Calf debacle. The Talmud teaches:

Had the tablets not been broken, no nation nor language would have controlled them. (Eruvin 54a)

The cause for the shattering of the tablets was, of course, the Golden Calf. Once the tablets were shattered the spiritual ability of the nation was handicapped. Things had changed; the people had become distanced from God, from the Shechina.

Now we can understand why the Ten Commandments are taught again in this week's Torah portion. Moses wishes to turn back the clock, and take the nation to the spiritual strata, which they enjoyed while standing at Sinai, prior to the Golden Calf.

Moses wishes to turn back the clock to before the Golden Calf.

We can also understand why the Sh'ma is taught in the same Torah portion. What better way to connect to God than via this ultimate statement of acceptance of God?

In order for Moses to have a chance to enter Israel, he did not need to fix anything in his relationship with God, his prayers were not necessary. For Moses to enter the land, and more importantly for the people to stay in the land, the people needed to change, to grow closer to the Shechina.

Therefore, Moses is told by God to cease his prayers, and instead Moses is told to take up what he does best: teach.

Moses gives a phenomenal "lecture" in the hope that this will lead his students, his followers, back to God. Moses attempts to fix that which was severed.

In the end, Moses' efforts fell short, but the "lecture" which he left us remains. The people of Israel simply have to read this week's Torah portion in order to get an idea on how to reunite with God, and to become one with the Shechina. Just like our teacher, Moses.

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