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Yoni Mozeson
FInding God's hiding places

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 would it look to the Egyptians if the Israelites were miraculously liberated, only to be
slaughtered in the desert:

לָ֩מָּה֩ יֹאמְר֨וּ מִצְרַ֜יִם לֵאמֹ֗ר בְּרָעָ֤ה הֽוֹצִיאָם֙ לַהֲרֹ֤ג אֹתָם֙ בֶּֽהָרִ֔ים וּ֨לְכַלֹּתָ֔ם מֵעַ֖ל פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֑הLet not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He (God) 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 הֹלְהָבִיא֙ אֶת־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֣ע לָהֶ֑ם וַיִּשְׁחָטֵ֖ם בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃It must be because God was powerless to bring this nation 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 also 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 on 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 ten 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 האֱלֹקיךָ 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) (Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan 1:1). 

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 מְכַלֶּהThe 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 וְלָרָשָׁעthe righteous and the wicked share the same fate.” (Kohelet 9:2) (Midrash Tanchuma Ibid)

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, Mosheteaches 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. (In the Midrash, there is no problem with Moshe quoting from a text that technically was written yet). 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. (Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan 1:2) 

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 כְּבוֹדֶךָPlease 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 לָהֶםNot 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 חִנָּםMoshe replied, if so  then do a Mitzvah and grant me my wish – for no reason at all”  (Midrash Tanchuma Vaetchanan 3:1). 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 ironic. 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. You might find it to be 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 ten spies.

About the Author
(Almost 100 Midrash Video summaries can be found on my youtube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLynSVeS5_iNhHleKroA6r3br-bmaHQigk) 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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