The remarkable number 515
As we embark upon reading Sefer Devorim [Deuteronomy], following a summary of the Israelites’ forty-year trek in the Wilderness, including veiled rebuke of the Jewish people for the sins of the Golden Calf, the incident of the Spies, Korach’s rebellion and so on, Moshe Rabbeinu raises a personal issue, namely Hashem’s not permitting him to enter the Land of Israel. The second parsha in Devorim begins with Moshe saying, “Va’eschanan Hashem ba’ais hahee….” “I implored Hashem at that time…” [Deuteronomy/ Devorim 3:23]. While the proximate cause of the decree forbidding his entering the Land was Moshe’s striking the rock at Kadesh to draw water rather than speaking to it as he had been commanded (though his failure to sanctify G-d sufficiently was largely the result of confusion about which rock), the commentators offered various explanations for the underlying cause. One of the most commonly cited reasons was Abarbanel’s, [Art Scroll Chumash, footnote to Bamidbar/ Numbers 20:13] that Moshe and Aharon both deserved punishment for prior sins – Aharon for his role in making the Golden Calf, and Moshe for sending the spies who discouraged the Jewish people from undertaking the conquest of the Holy Land – which had been deferred, just as Aharon’s sons Nadab and Abihu (as well as the Elders) deserved punishment, according to Rashi, for gazing upon the sacred image of G-d at Mount Sinai while eating and drinking, [Shemos / Exodus 24:11], but their punishment was postponed until Nadab and Abihu sinned by improperly offering incense after the installation of Aharon, [Vayikra/ Leviticus 10:1-2] so as not to mar their celebration.
Regardless of the reason for Moshe’s being barred from entering Israel, his repeated pleas created an issue. Strictly speaking, as a Levite, Moshe wasn’t subject to the decree of all males over the age of twenty dying during the forty years in the wilderness (for that matter, neither were Aharon, Yehoshua ben Nun, Calev ben Yephunneh, all the Levites, and all the women). Nevertheless, Hashem’s separate decree against him stood.
Moshe wasn’t easily deterred, however. The Midrash Says elaborates as follows: [Sefer Devorim, Parshas Vaeschanan, pp. 45-54] he had an overwhelming longing both to perform the mitzvos that could only be done in the Land of Israel, such as terumos, ma’asros, bikkurim, and shemittah, and to encourage other Jews to do likewise. Consequently, Moshe presented a series of appeals to Hashem in hopes of the decree being rescinded. First, he argued that having killed the Amorite kings Sichon and Og, his mission would be incomplete if he didn’t conquer the 31 kings of Canaan. Further, he wanted to see the site of the future Temple [Beis HaMikdash]. That didn’t succeed. (Although just before his death Hashem allowed him to climb to the summit of Har [Mount] Nevo and showed him both the Land all the way to Lebanon and the future events that would occur there.)
Next, Moshe expressed willingness to turn over leadership to Yehoshua (Joshua) and go into Israel as an ordinary citizen, but G-d replied that a king doesn’t enter his country as a commoner. Then he asked if he couldn’t enter alive, at least he could be buried there like Yosaif. Hashem countered that whereas Yosaif always referred to himself in Egypt as a Hebrew, when Yisro’s daughters described Moshe to their father as an Egyptian man who rescued them from the shepherds, he didn’t correct them.
The dialogue continued, with Moshe’s appeals becoming ever more insistent, until he uttered his 515th tefillah, at which point G-d ordered him to cease and desist. Appearing with his Great Court of Angels, Hashem told Moshe that his time had come, and if he were to continue pleading, it would bring them both into disrepute, as it would appear that Moshe had been quite sinful and that G-d had been cruel to deny so many prayers. Moreover, to allow Moshe to enter Eretz Yisrael would be unfair to the rest of the Generation of the Exodus, including his brother Aharon, insofar as it would appear that everyone else deserved to die in the wilderness, while only Moshe merited forgiveness. It would actually be to their benefit to have Moshe buried with them, so that at the time of techiyas hameisim [the resurrection of the dead] he would lead them all into the Promised Land as was originally intended.
So what was so remarkable about the number 515, besides being a numerical palindrome (reads the same forward and backward)? 515 is the gematria of Va’eschanan, the word for “imploring” that began the parshah. [For the uninitiated, Hebrew has no numerals. Each of the 22 letters of the alphabet has a numeric value: aleph = 1, beis = 2, gimel = 3, and so on until yud = 10, after which the values increase by tens for the next eight letters, through tsade = 90, at which point the last four letters increase by hundreds, ending with tof = 400. Thus every word and phrase has its gematria, obtained by adding the values of all its letters.] While every word has a unique gematria, other words can have the identical gematria, akin to the mathematical properties of a function. Thus 515 is also the gematria of elyon [Most High], which refers to Hashem, and of tefillah [prayer], so it is reasonable to infer that Moshe said 515 prayers.
If Moshe were to go farther, his prayers would have had to be answered, which would have upset the Divine plan. In particular, had Moshe conquered Eretz Yisrael and commissioned the building of the Temple, it would have been indestructible, so that when the Jewish people sinned grievously, Hashem would have destroyed us rather than taking out his “wrath” on the building. Undoubtedly, Moshe understood that rationale. Let’s hope that he can complete his mission in the near future, im yirtze Hashem [G-d willing].