Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Serving and Deserving
Moshe Rabbeinu begins Parshas Va'eschanan by describing for the
Jewish nation his unsuccessful plea to Hashem to allow him to enter
Israel. When, in Parshas Chukas, Moshe failed to follow Hashem's
instructions - hitting the stone to bring forth its waters instead of
coercing it with words - Hashem had punished him, promising he
would not enter the Holy Land together with his nation. Here, Moshe
describes how he pleaded with Hashem for "one more chance," yet
was refused. Moshe then relates how, in his stead, Hashem
commanded him to appoint Yehoshua as the new leader of the
Two questions come to mind: 1) Why does Moshe publicly reveal his
unsuccessful negotiations with Hashem? Certainly there were many
other private conversations between Hashem and himself that he
chose not to disclose. The fact that he chose to do so here must
mean there is something in it for us to learn. 2) How does Hashem's
refusal of his prayer relate to giving over the leadership mantle to
Rashi notes that the word va'eschanan is one of ten possible Hebrew
terms for prayer. Why did Moshe make use of this particular type of
prayer? Va'eschanan comes from the root Chanan - to grant favour.
This, Rashi explains, is the way of the righteous and truly humble:
Their requests of Hashem are those of one seeking an undeserved
favour. They do not demand that their request be granted. They don't
try to "force Hashem's hand" by reminding Him of all the good
they've done, and asking for one little favour in return. They ask,
simply, for Chinun - grace and favour to one who has done nothing
to deserve it.
There is an expression in Yiddish: Es kumt mir - I deserve it. The
word "deserve" is a powerful word: "You deserve a vacation!" "I
deserve a raise!" "We deserve a good meal!" It is a word often used
with a sense of indignation: "He deserves better than that!"
The righteous, though they likely deserve that their prayers be
answered more than we do, never see it that way. They never say to
Hashem: Es kumt mir chotch azoi fil - At least this much I deserve!
They stand before Hashem in prayer, and ask for no more than an
This brings to mind a story I heard from a good friend, a Holocaust
survivor. His brother, who was a chosson (engaged to be married),
had received his shtreimel (a customary chassidic fur hat worn on
Shabbos) from his mechutan (future father-in-law). It was, shall we
say, not quite what he had hoped for. Not that it was terrible; he had
just hoped for something more elegant - perhaps darker, thicker,
straighter, more regal. His mechutan, after all, was a man of means.
He could afford to buy a shtreimel fit for kings! He felt he deserved
better. He expressed to his father, an erudite Talmudic scholar, his
disappointment. "My son," he said, "if this is what you got - I guess it's
all you deserved."
If we take the time to consider it, there's plenty of room for Moshe to
feel indignant about Hashem's refusal to allow him into the Land of
Israel. Was it not he who had, at great personal risk, left his
comfortable environs to journey to Egypt. For forty years, he had
faithfully led his less-than-faithful flock through the ravages of the
wilderness. And now - this! Because of one relatively minor slip-up, he
would not be allowed to complete his mission!
Imagine you've been a cautious driver your whole life. You never
speed, come to complete stops at every stop sign, always slow for
yellow lights; the whole bit. Once, in a moment of absentmindedness,
a cop clocks you going 5 kilometres over the limit. And he throws the
book at you! He writes up a hefty ticket. And then, to your shock, he
tears up your licence. "You won't be needing this any more - I've
suspended your licence... permanently." "But officer..."
What was it that allowed Moshe to accept Hashem's seemingly
unreasonable decree with such equanimity? It is the answer to this
question, which much certainly have been on the minds, if not the
lips, of his generation, that he comes to teach them here.
Va'eschanan - And I asked for a favour. I never said: Es kumt mir!
There was no tit-for-tat; no haggling, bartering, or extortionate
contract negotiations. I asked for a completely undeserved favour. My
request was refused. That's ok too - I never expected more.
It is normally a painful experience to witness one's greatness being
torn away and given to someone else - not something for those with
delicate egos. All the more so in this case, where Moshe had hoped
that perhaps one of his sons would "continue the family tradition" and
be granted the leadership of Israel. It was this sense of deserving
nothing, of extreme gratitude and thanksgiving to Hashem for the
years he had been able to lead the nation, that allowed him so
wholeheartedly to endorse a new leader not of his own blood.
Perhaps this is why the Torah describes Moshe's unsuccessful prayer
and the leadership transfer in one paragraph: It was the way Moshe
reacted to Hashem's refusal, his tranquil acceptance of whatever
Hashem saw fit to grant him, that allowed him to gladly relinquish his
position and prepare the nation for the coming years, of which he
would be no part.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 45:6) relates the following:
Moshe once asked to see the reward of the righteous.
"This chamber," Hashem showed him, "is the reward for
those who care for orphans. And this - for those who
scrupulously guard the mitzvos." Then, Moshe saw a
tremendous chamber, far greater than all the rest. "For
whom is this chamber?" he asked. "Those who deserve
reward," Hashem answered, "will be rewarded from the
appropriate chamber. Those who deserve nothing - I will
grant them from here."
The question is obvious: Why is the chamber of those who deserve
nothing far greater than the chambers of those who deserve? Perhaps
what Hashem meant to say was the following: Those who feel they
deserve something for all their hard work, will be granted their
appropriate reward. But those who, after all their effort and self-
sacrifice (mesirus nefesh), feel they deserve nothing - for them I have
set aside a special chamber of reward far greater than for those who
feel they deserve!
Living in a society which so actively promotes and demands "rights" -
human rights, animal rights, right-of-way etc. - it is easy to let this
attitude seep into our relationship with Hashem; we deserve more,
better, fairer... Moshe Rabbeinu's lesson, which he payed with his life
to teach us, is that we deserve nothing. To accept with grace what G-d,
in His kindness, sees fit to give us; whether more, less, or different
than what we had expected or hoped for.
Have a good Shabbos.