Yoni Mozeson
Yoni Mozeson

Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan: How God gently guides Moshe to reconcile with death

Part one  https://youtu.be/RYMThvB97hI

Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan Part I: While facing death Moshe taught us how to pray for life

According to Midrash Tanchuma, the name of our parsha, וָאֶתְחַנָּן, corresponds to a specific, philosophical approach to prayer. It was Moshe’s opportunity to teach us how to pray and how not to give up.

As we know, the prayers of Moshe were so powerful that they saved the Jewish People at our most vulnerable moments early in our history. After the sin of the golden calf, Moshe argued: how it would look to the Egyptians if we were miraculously liberated, only to be slaughtered in the desert: 

 לָ֩מָּה֩ יֹאמְר֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם לֵאמֹ֗ר בְּרָעָ֤ה הֽוֹצִיאָם֙ לַהֲרֹ֤ג אֹתָם֙ בֶּֽהָרִ֔ים וּ֨לְכַלֹּתָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה “Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.” (Shemot 32:13)

After the sin of the spies Moshe once again argued that it would be a “Chilul Hashem” – a desecration of God’s name to wipe out the Jewish People. It would be seen by the world as a limitation of God’s ability to bring the Jews to the Promised Land: 

 מִבִּלְתִּ֞י יְכֹ֣לֶת הֹ’ לְהָבִיא֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לָהֶ֑ם וַיִּשְׁחָטֵ֖ם בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃ “It must be because God was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them, that He slaughtered them in the wilderness” (Bamidbar 14:10)

In both cases, it’s theologically impossible to say that Moshe “changed God’s mind” by pointing out something that God did not think of.  Rather, Moshe defended the Jews using a principle God uses to run the world. God, “prefers” to avoid a desecration of His name. Perhaps God’s suggestion to destroy the Jews was actually a leadership test for Moshe. After witnessing the Jewish People derailing the divine plan of entering the land of Israel, would Moshe give up on his People or defend them at all costs? Moshe boldly and unequivocally rose to the task.  

This time the “what will people think” argument, didn’t work

According to commentaries to the Midrash Tanchuma, Moshe tried a similar argument here.  What would it look like to the outside observer if Moshe was barred from entering the land of Israel. It would appear that he would be suffering the same fate as the 10 spies who defamed the land!*

 הַמְּרַגְּלִים הוֹצִיאוּ דִּבָּה עַל הָאָרֶץ, וְאָמְרוּ, אֶרֶץ אוֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ (במדבר יג, לב). אֲבָל אֲנִי לֹא רָאִיתִי אוֹתָהּ וְשִׁבַּחְתִּיהָ לִפְנֵי בָּנֶיךָ וְאָמַרְתִּי, כִּי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה. “The spies slandered the land and called it ‘a land that consumes its inhabitants’ (Bamidbar 13:32). I never saw the land yet I praised it before Your children and said that ‘the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land’ (Devarim 8:7) 

 Moshe warns of a spiritual fallout. 

When his argument was rejected out of hand, the Midrash has Moshe quoting from the Book of Iyov : תָּם וְרָשָׁע הוּא מְכַלֶּה “The innocent and the evil come to the same end.” (Iyov 9:22). Earlier the Midrash had Moshe citing the famous verse from Kohelet מִקְרֶה אֶחָד לַצַּדִּיק וְלָרָשָׁע “the righteous and the wicked share the same fate.” (Kohelet 9:2) 

The commentaries take this to mean that Moshe was dramatizing how someone’s faith could be shaken if they mistakenly concluded that Moshe was treated unfairly.* God flatly rejected this approach.

What should Moshe do now? Give up the dream of entering the land of Israel. No, Moshe teaches us to be persistent in prayer. In fact, in Moshe’s next prayer he seems to concede to God that things are often not as they appear. Perhaps Moshe was admitting that people will not necessarily think that God treated him unfairly. 

 Life is an illusion

Moshe quotes Kohelet again. However, this time it seems to underscore that God runs the world and you should expect the unexpected:

 כִּ֣י לֹא֩ לַקַּלִּ֨ים הַמֵּר֜וֹץ וְלֹ֧א לַגִּבּוֹרִ֣ים הַמִּלְחָמָ֗ה וְ֠גַ֠ם לֹ֣א לַחֲכָמִ֥ים לֶ֙חֶם֙ וְגַ֨ם לֹ֤א לַנְּבֹנִים֙ עֹ֔שֶׁר וְגַ֛ם לֹ֥א לַיֹּדְעִ֖ים חֵ֑ן כִּי־עֵ֥ת וָפֶ֖גַע יִקְרֶ֥ה אֶת־כֻּלָּֽם׃ “The race is not won by the swift, Nor the battle by the valiant; Nor is bread won by the wise, Nor wealth by the intelligent, Nor popularity by the articulate. For an unexpected downfall comes to all. (Kohelet 9:11)  

Midrash Tanchuma applies this verse to the life of Moshe. Despite spectacular achievements like bringing down the Torah and challenging angels in heaven, Moshe could not escape God’s decree.

The most powerful reason why God should grant our wishes – no reason at alL

Now Moshe’s prayer takes a critical turn. The Midrash points out that there are many names for prayer in the Torah but now we are honing in on the specific technique that Moshe used. Moshe inquired of God הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבוֹדֶךָ “Please show me your glory” – the hidden principles upon which you run the world (Shemot 33:18).

  God shared with Moshe that it is God’s will to reward Man, but God is in no way “obliged” to do so. 

  לֹא שֶׁאֲנִי חַיָּב לְכָל בְּרִיָּה כְּלוּם, אֶלָּא חִנָּם אֲנִי נוֹתֵן לָהֶם “Not because I (God) have obligations to My creations, rather I reward (by choice)  – for free.”As it says וַחֲנֹתִי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם – “the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show” (Shemot 33:19).

 Moshe asks God to do a Mitzvah

Moshe seizes on this inside information. אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, אִם כֵּן עֲשֵׂה עָלַי מִצְוָה וְתֵן לִי חִנָּם “Moshe replied, if so  then do a Mitzvah and grant me my wish – for no reason at all.”  This bold, new approach, according to the Midrash, is summed up in one word, the name of our Parsha, וָאֶתְחַנָּן, which contains the all important word –  חִנָּם- for nothing” 

The fact that Moshe refers to his request as a מִצְוָה is dripping with irony. We think of a Mitzvah as something we were commanded to do for God. But God just finished saying that He has no obligation to Mankind, rather God grants our wishes because that is what God chooses to do. Perhaps that’s the point. There is no entity in the world that can command God to do anything.  So for God to do a “Mitzvah” can only be an act that God does בחִנָּם – with absolutely no obligation. 

If you find this notion unsettling, I suggest you put it into practice. I personally found it a freeing idea. There is no scorecard that God is checking to redeem the points we have racked up. Answers to our prayers are not confined to such simplistic mechanisms.

 If at first you don’t succeed, pray, pray again.

The Midrash describes Moshe’s actions at the end of last week’s parsha – Devarim – as akin to someone making out their will. Moshe assigns land to the tribes of Reuven, Gad and Menashe and provides final instructions to Yehoshua. Yet in the very next parsha – וָאֶתְחַנָּן – Moshe started praying. This, according to the Midrash is yet another lesson on prayer from Moshe Rabeinu. Even if someone is at the point where they have to put their affairs in order before their impending death – keep praying. 

 Moshe turns his prayer into a teachable moment. 

Throughout his life Moshe Rabeinu taught Torah as a loyal scribe accurately transmitting the word of God.  Midrash Tanchuma shows us that Moshe also taught by example. Even while facing death Moshe taught us how to pray for life. 

*The simple reading of the text has Moshe asserting that it is simply not fair for him to get the same punishment as the 10 spies. 

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PART TWO:

Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan: How God gently guides Moshe to reconcile with death

Imagine for a moment a conversation between God and a great world leader who was just informed that it was time for him to depart this world. Perhaps the leader would plead that their nation can’t function without them. They are loved by the masses who will be distraught and directionless without them. Or, they have so much more to accomplish and no one else can fill their shoes. 

Moshe said none of this. In fact he pleaded with God to appoint a new leader.

However, Moshe did very much want to enter the land of Israel – or at least be buried there. After all, it was the goal of his travels and travails for the last 40 years. To that end, Moshe tried many different arguments. Perhaps his most creative approach was to use the laws of slavery in an attempt to secure his freedom

According to Midrash Tanchuma, Moshe notes that God affectionately referred to him as His servant which means, of course, that God is his Master.

לֹא־כֵ֖ן עַבְדִּ֣י מֹשֶׁ֑ה “Not so with My servant Moshe…”  (Exodus 21;5)

The Torah clearly states that a servant can choose to remain with his master forever and not go free:

וְאִם־אָמֹ֤ר יֹאמַר֙ הָעֶ֔בֶד אָהַ֙בְתִּי֙ אֶת־אֲדֹנִ֔י אֶת־אִשְׁתִּ֖י וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑י לֹ֥א אֵצֵ֖א חָפְשִֽׁי׃וְהִגִּישׁ֤וֹ אֲדֹנָיו֙ אֶל־הָ֣אֱלֹהִ֔ים וְהִגִּישׁוֹ֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֔לֶת א֖וֹ אֶל־הַמְּזוּזָ֑ה וְרָצַ֨ע אֲדֹנָ֤יו אֶת־אָזְנוֹ֙ בַּמַּרְצֵ֔עַ וַעֲבָד֖וֹ לְעֹלָֽם׃

“But if the servant declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free. His master shall take him before the Judge. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life.” (Exodus 21:5-6)

Thus Moshe declares his love for God, His Torah, and His children, so he does not wish to leave this world.

To counter Moshe’s claim, Midrash Tanchuma picks up on Moshe’s slave analogy in the context of the finality of death:

 שֶׁאֲפִלּוּ לְקָחוֹ רַבּוֹ בְּאֶלֶף אַלְפֵי דִּינְרֵי זָהָב, כֵּיוָן שֶׁיַּגִּיעַ קִצּוֹ לָמוּת, אֵינוֹ יָכֹל לוֹמַר עַבְדִּי אַתָּה, אֶלָּא נַעֲשֶׂה חָפְשִׁי מֵאֲדוֹנָיו.

“Even if his master bought him (his slave) for thousands and thousands of gold coins, once (the slave’s) time to die has come, he (the Master) cannot say, “He is my slave,” but rather he becomes free from his master.” Iyov (3:19)

Seeking to end the discussion, God reminds Moshe that once Adam sinned he brought death (mortality) to all of Mankind, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When Moshe’s appeals were unsuccessful he attempted to solicit the intervention of Heaven and Earth, stars and planets, mountains and hills, the Great Sea, even an angel.  All to no avail.

The emotional conclusion to a love story

In his final plea to God, Moshe asks if he could give up his leadership role and simply be one of Yehoshua’s students. God agrees. Since Moshe had already transferred his divine spirit, the Midrash shares a dramatic sequence in which Moshe attends a lecture by Yehoshua:  

וְלֹא הָיָה יוֹדֵעַ מֹשֶׁה מֶה הָיָה יְהוֹשֻׁעַ דּוֹרֵשׁ. אַחַר שֶׁעָמְדוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיְּשִׁיבָה, אָמְרוּ לְמֹשֶׁה, פָּרֵשׁ לָנוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה. אָמַר לָהֶם: אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ מָה אָשִׁיב לָכֶם.… בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה אָמַר מֹשֶׁה, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, עַד עַכְשָׁו בִּקַּשְׁתִּי חַיִּים, וְעַכְשָׁו הֲרֵי נַפְשִׁי נְתוּנָה לְךָ.

“… Moshe did not know what Yehoshua was expounding. Afterwards the Jews… said to Moshe, “(Explain) the Torah we have just heard.” He said to them, “I do not know what to answer you.” … It was at that time that Moshe said, ‘Master of the universe, up to now I requested life, but now here is my soul given over to You.”’

God got Moshe to realize on his own that once his primary role as a teacher was completed, he had little left to offer his people.  

The tables are turned

When Moshe finally accepts his imminent death, it’s God’s turn to mourn.

פָּתַח הַקָּבָּה וְאָמַר, מִי יָקוּם לִי עִם מְרֵעִים (תהלים צד, טז). מִי יַעֲמֹד לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בִּשְׁעַת כַּעֲסִי, וּמִי יַעֲמֹד בְּמִלְחַמְתָּן שֶׁל בָּנַי, מִי יְבַקֵּשׁ רַחֲמִים עֲלֵיהֶם בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁחוֹטְאִין לְפָנַי.

“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, opened by saying “’Who will stand for Me against evildoers? Who will stand for Israel in the time of My wrath? Who will stand in the battle of My children? And who will stand and seek mercy for them, when they sin before Me?” (Psalms 94:16)

The final moments

Midrash Tanchuma provides the final conversation between Moshe and the Jewish People.  Perhaps it’s so moving because it sounds like the parting words every parent hopes to have the courage to say to their children before they leave this world. And the compassionate response every parent would want to receive in return: 

אָמַר לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, הַרְבֵּה צִעַרְתִּי אֶתְכֶם עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הַמִּצְוֹת, וְעַכְשָׁו מַחֲלוּ לִי. אָמְרוּ לֵיהּ, רַבֵּנוּ אֲדוֹנֵנוּ מָחוּל הוּא לָךְ. אַף יִשְׂרָאֵל עָמְדוּ עָלָיו וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ: מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ, הַרְבֵּה הִכְעַסְנוּךָ וְהִרְבֵּינוּ עָלֶיךָ טֹרַח, מְחֹל לָנוּ. אָמַר לָהֶם: מָחוּל לָכֶם. בָּאוּ וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ: הִגִּיעַ רֶגַע שֶׁאַתָּה נִפְטָר מִן הָעוֹלָם. אָמַר, בָּרוּךְ שְׁמוֹ חַי וְקַיָּם לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. אָמַר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּבַקָּשָׁה מִכֶּם כְּשֶׁתִּכָּנְסוּ לָאָרֶץ זִכְרוּ אוֹתִי וְאֶת עַצְמוֹתַי, וְתֹאמְרוּ אוֹי לְבֶן עַמְרָם שֶׁרָץ לְפָנֵינוּ כְּסוּס וְנָפְלוּ עַצְמוֹתָיו בַּמִּדְבָּר. בָּאוּ וְאָמְרוּ לוֹ: הִגִּיעַ חֲצִי רֶגַע. נָטַל שְׁתֵּי יָדָיו וְהִנִּיחָן עַל לִבּוֹ, וְאָמַר לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, רְאוּ אַחֲרִיתוֹ שֶׁל בָּשָׂר וָדָם עָנוּ וְאָמְרוּ יָדַיִם שֶׁקִּבְּלוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה, יִפְּלוּ בַּקֶּבֶר. בְּאוֹתוֹ רֶגַע, יָצָאת נִשְׁמָתוֹ בִּנְשִׁיקָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיָּמָת שָׁם מֹשֶׁה וְגוֹ‘ (דברים לד, ה). וְלֹא נִתְעַסְּקוּ בִּקְבוּרָתוֹ לֹא יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא הַמַּלְאָכִים, אֶלָּא הַקָּבָּ”ה

“(Moshe was informed) the hour has arrived  to depart from the world.” He said to the nation of Israel, ‘I have caused you much grief over the Torah and over the commandments, but now forgive me.’ They said to him, ‘Our lord master, you are forgiven.’ Israel also arose before him and said to him, ‘Oh Moshe our master, we have angered you a lot and increased the burden upon you. Forgive us.’ He said to them, ‘You are forgiven.’ (Moshe was informed) the moment has arrived to depart from the world. He said, ‘Blessed be the name of the One who lives and abides forever.’ He said to Israel, ‘If you please, when you enter the land, remember me and my bones, and you shall say, ‘Woe to the son of Amram, who ran before us like a horse but whose bones have fallen in the wilderness.’ (Moshe was informed) “the half moment has arrived. He took his two arms and placed them on his heart. Then he said to Israel, ‘See the final end of flesh and blood.’ They answered and said, ‘The hands which received the Torah from the mouth of the Almighty shall fall to the grave.’ At that moment his soul departed with a kiss (from the Holy One, Blessed Be He) …Now (the ones who) took care of his burial were neither Israel nor the angels but the Holy One, Blessed Be He, [Himself]…”

Can our final chapter be anything like this

Perhaps this is a story of what every human should be praying for. That God guides us in the course of life to finally come to an understanding of what really matters. What our mission was, what we achieved and how to reconcile with death.

Moshe realized that his essential role was that of “Moshe Rabeinu” the teacher of the Jewish People who faithfully transmitted God’s message to the Jewish People and the world.

It seems to me there’s another message to this story as well. Midrash Tanchuma is presenting the final scene of the extraordinarily close relationship between a man and God. It’s true that Moshe had the highest degree of prophecy that will ever be achieved. However, can we at least strive for a relationship with God in which our prayers are as deep, emotional, and real. Can we feel close enough to God that our prayers express our innermost hopes and dreams. And yes, our downfalls and defeats. 

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About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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