26 Jul 2023 Parshas Va’Eschanan: Lessons from the Tefillah of Moshe Rabbeinu
This week’s sedra, Va’Eschanan, opens with the tefilos of Moshe Rabbeinu to be allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael (E”Y). The opening verses of the parsha tell us of the content and structure of Moshe’s prayer:
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל ה בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר – and I pleaded with Hashem at that time saying; O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? אֶעְבְּרָה־נָּ֗א וְאֶרְאֶה֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּעֵ֣בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה וְהַלְּבָנֹֽן – Please let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon (Devarim 3:23-25).
“הָהָ֥ר הַטּ֛וֹב הַזֶּ֖ה, this good mountain,” Rashi teaches that this refers to Yerushalayim; and והלבנן, the Lebanon: זֶה בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ refers to the Beis Ha’Mikdash (for it whitens the sins of the people).”
The Ba’al HaTurim beautifully teaches: ואתחנן בגימטרי‘ שירה שאמר לפניו שירה כדי שישמע תפלתו, the numeric value of the word וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן, “and I pleaded”, is the same numeric value as the word שירה, song (both are 515 in gematria). This teaches that Moshe recited shira before Hashem, so that his tefillos would be heard.
In regard to the form of tefillah that is shira, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, zt’l, teaches: “The term shirah (song) in the Halacha signifies the externalization of aesthetic experience, the outpouring of a grateful soul seething with longing and yearning for the beloved who is lovely and full of grace. ‘This is my G-d and I will adore Him’ (Shemos 15:2) is the motto of shirah. G-d is extolled and adored because He is beautiful” (Worship of the Heart, p.65).
Furthermore, from the structure of his tefilos – in that first Moshe praised G-d, and then he supplicated Him for his request to enter the Land – Chazal learn out that:
לְעוֹלָם יְסַדֵּר אָדָם שִׁבְחוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, וְאַחַר כָּךְ יִתְפַּלֵּל – a person should always first praise G-d, and then he should pray (Brachos 32a).
This, indeed is the structure of our daily Amidah. We open with blessings of praise, and only after offering praise, do we request and beseech G-d for our needs and wants.
Why did Moshe want to enter into E”Y? Chazal teach that Moshe, the eved Hashem par excellence, was motivated by the purest intentions, and solely l’Shem Shomayim.
דָּרַשׁ רַבִּי שִׂמְלַאי: מִפְּנֵי מָה נִתְאַוָּה מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּינוּ לִיכָּנֵס לְאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל? וְכִי לֶאֱכוֹל מִפִּרְיָהּ הוּא צָרִיךְ?! אוֹ לִשְׂבּוֹעַ מִטּוּבָהּ הוּא צָרִיךְ?! אֶלָּא כָּךְ אָמַר מֹשֶׁה: הַרְבֵּה מִצְוֹת נִצְטַוּוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֵין מִתְקַיְּימִין אֶלָּא בְּאֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל. אֶכָּנֵס אֲנִי לָאָרֶץ כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּתְקַיְּימוּ כּוּלָּן עַל יָדִי
Why did Moshe desire to enter into E”Y? Did he need to eat of its fruits? Or did he want to be satiated from her physical sustenance and goodness? Neither of these were his motivation. Rather, Moshe said: There are so many mitzvos that the nation has been commanded, and they can only be performed and kept in E”Y. Hence, I will enter the Land so these mitzvos (ha’teluoys ba’Aretz) will be fulfilled through me (Sotah 14a).
And yet, due to the Divine gezeirah (decree), and despite all of Moshe’s 515 tefilos (the gematria of וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן), the answer was ’No’. Moshe was not permitted to enter the Land; not in life, nor in death (for burial). Nevertheless, Moshe davened – five hundred and fifteen times! He davened for himself, for the nation, and for all generations. In fact, much of Moshe’s leadership revolves around tefillah. For all the times the Israelites sinned, and evoked the wrath of G-d in the desert, there was Moshe, the ever faithful shepherd of the flock, always present leader, who prayed on their behalf.
R’ Soloveitchik movingly and stirringly teaches that during prayer, “Contact is established with the Almighty in the abyss of a warm heart, in a love-sick soul, in the experience of the invisible, in the richness of the inner life, in being aware of something supernal, great, awesome and beautiful, although this ‘something’ is neither seen nor heart. However devoid of sensuous material this feeling is, it is still an immediate reality, whose impact upon the religious person is enormous. In a word, the aesthetic experience of G-d, whether constructed of impressions and sensations drawn from our daily life, where man is engrossed in images and psychophysical sensuous processes, or consisting of ecstatic emotions, in the throbbing of the heart and the longing of the soul, is the basis of the community of G-d and man.
“It is impossible to imagine prayer without, at the time, feeling the nearness and greatness of the Creator, His absolute justice, His fatherly concern with human affairs, His anger and wrath caused by unjust deeds. When we bow in prayer, we must experience His soothing hand and the infinite love and mercy for His creatures. We cling to Him as a living G-d, not as an idea, as an abstract Being. We are in His company and are certain of His sympathy. There is in prayer an experience of emotions which can only be produced by direct contact with G-d” (Worship of the Heart, p.63).
Chazal (Brachos 32b) teach that tefillah needs constant strengthening (effort and concentration to improve), as the pasuk (Tehilim 27:14) says: קַוֵּה אֶל ה׳ חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל ה – hope to Hashem, strengthen and fortify your heart, and hope to Hashem (since the pasuk repeats ‘hope to Hashem’, we learn from here that prayer needs a ‘doubling’ and strengthening). May we each strengthen our personal avodah of tefillah, may we merit that our personal and communal tefillos are accepted on the highest heights, may we always feel the closeness to Hashem that comes with prayer, and may we merit the day when we will all be returned to our home, our Land, may it be immediate and in our days.
בברכת מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים,