Moshe’s Lesson for Us

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Vaetchanan / I entreated YHVH at that time, saying… (Deut 3:23).

[Moshe is praying that he not die in the land of Moab, but that he be allowed to enter the Land of Israel with the rest of the Israelites.]

The word, אתחנן / etchanan / I entreated, is written in the reflexive case which means that the object of the verb is also the subject. So in the case of prayer, it means that Moshe prayed himself. A reflexive in this instance functions as an intensifier with respect to the impact of the action, which is the experience Moshe has in praying. We may think of prayer as consisting of the one who prays and a God to whom one prays. But by putting the verb in the reflexive, it creates a feedback loop; the praying has more effect on the one who prays.

Moshe says, in effect:

“It davvened itself out from me. Even before I knew what I was about to do, the prayer burst out of me. It’s on the level of (Psalms 69:14), ואני תפלתי / va-ani t’filiti /and I pray myself; it sort of imbued my being and I was my prayer which basically flowed from my mouth involuntarily.

“And this happened, despite the fact that I wasn’t feeling confident that the result for which I was praying would come to pass. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was not going to enter the Land and, it felt unlikely to me that God would change His edict in that regard. So from my perspective at this time, I was approaching God humbly and lowly-kneeling. Nonetheless, I didn’t avoid praying. “The reason is, as it says, (Eccl 3:1) ‘Everything has an appointed season and there is a time for every matter‘.”

[Even though his judgment said it was impossible, as long as he felt the desire for it in his heart, he still prayed for it. “There will be a time when every desire will have its appointed season; and who knows, maybe now was the time for this one.” He didn’t shut down because he was expecting to be disappointed; he didn’t thereby avoid for himself the associated pain. He gave his desire room to grow and to breathe and took it to YHVH. It was appropriate for Moshe to pray to bring about that which was a desire in his heart.]

There’s a time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking, as it is written, (Exodus 14:14), “but you shall remain silent“, however, as it was previously said by David Hamelech A’h, even for the time to refrain from speaking, (Psalms 34:2), it is written, “I should bless Hashem at all times, His praise is always in my mouth“. Refraining from speaking doesn’t apply to prayer; since the Good One and the Source of Goodness and the True Judge are blessed, His praise is always in my mouth. Even at that time when our judgment tells us it’s not propitious, that God’s not going to answer our prayers, nonetheless, it changes the way we feel when we pray about things that we long for and it raises us up. Just being a supplicant raises us up in our feelings, in our relationship to the result for which we’re praying. Therefore it is said that one shouldn’t only say one’s prayers in a whisper; rather one should vocalize, should sound it so that it becomes as a dialogue between the person and between the One who established that person, created that person, i.e., the Source. (cf Sefer Mei Hashiloach in the first section of Vaetchanan.)

Here’s a paraphrase of what the Izhbitzer is saying in the referenced section: Moshe is letting the Israelites know that he prayed about this and on the surface of it, it seems like the prayer did not have any benefit. But that’s only if you’re looking on the level of his nefesh and whether the nefesh went into the Land with the rest of them. Despite the fact that his nefesh didn’t come into the land, nonetheless he wanted them to understand that they shouldn’t consider that his prayer was just for the preservation of his nefesh because, in truth, when they actually did enter the land, he was in fact still with them because he was their Rebbe. The same holds as well for every generation; he was their Rebbe too. Therefore, the prayer was not in vain. And he was teaching them at this moment, his prayer was a lesson for us. So the lesson is that prayer is not in vain.

Also we learn something from the way that the text is written because it’s in the reflexive which means that he became filled with supplication, it sort of imbued his being and he was his prayer which basically flowed from his mouth. Here’s the proof that it wasn’t in vain because if it filled him in such a way then clearly it was coming from God who had sent it to him and who had stirred his prayer in him. And certainly, if God is moving us to do something then it’s not going to be in vain if it seems to come about by itself from another place like that, overcome with the feeling.

And the text also has the words “at that time” which means that even when you get a clear message that the thing which you desire, which you have in your heart, is not going to happen, that it’s impossible to happen — because in this particular case, at that time, the Holy One blessed be He had promised definitively that he was not going to enter the Land — nonetheless he did not hold back praying.

No matter what our judgments tell us, nothing stands in the way of mercy. When you’re faced with a wall, with something that seems impenetrable, that you shouldn’t get discouraged to the extent that you won’t pray. You should pray your discouragement. And the word in Hebrew for wall, קיר meaning that it’s impenetrable is from the same root as the word for the source of life מקור. So therefore you should never cut yourself off from God’s rachamim, from God’s mercy no matter how dark and thick it seems and impossible it seems that you’re going to get that which you really desire; nonetheless you should pray.

So in sum, Moshe’s prayers were answered, just not on the level of his nefesh. It wasn’t in vain. No matter how dark and bleak the picture, if we can access our feelings and our desires we should put them into our prayers because the level of God’s mercy is a deeper level than the level of our judgment regarding whether a thing can or cannot happen. Moshe our Rebbe taught us all of this through his prayer at this time.

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