ואתחנן אל ה’ בעת ההוא
And I besought the Lord at that time
Rashi comments: All forms of the word “חינון” (beseeching) signify a gratuitous gift.
In the Midrash (Deuternonomy Rabbah 2:1): R. Johanan said, there are ten terms for prayer. . . . Of these terms, Moses made use only of תחנונים (beseeching), as it is written “ואתחנן אל ה” (and I besought the Lord). R. Johanan said: Hence you learn that no creature has any claim on his Creator, because Moses, the teacher of all the prophets, made use only of beseeching.
R. Johanan’s statement is very obscure; is it not evident that the prophets and seers, the righteous of every generation, poured out their supplications to the Eternal using many different terms for their prayers? For example (Genesis 25:21): “ויעתַר יצחק לה’ לנכח אשתו” (and Isaac entreated the Lord opposite his wife); (Psalms 106:30) “ויעמד פינחס ויְפלֵל” (and Phineas stood up and intervened); (1 Kings 8:22) “ויתפלל שלמה” (and Solomon prayed). Moses also said (Deuteronomy 9:18) “ואתנפל לפני ה’” )then I lay prostrate before the Lord). Why did Moses, just before his death, choose a crafty expression (לשון ערומים) by which to request a gratuitous gift? And in this case, how obscure are the ways of the Eternal, Who became incensed at Moses as if he were an adversary, replying harshly (Deuteronomy 3:26): “רב לך אל תוסף דבר אלי” )Enough; never speak to Me of this matter again). Was it not enough that He did not accept Moses’s prayer? Why did He also pour out His fiery wrath and shout angrily at Moses? What was the reason for His great anger?
Our master answered this question, enlightening us in a wonderful manner. For we know that the God of the universe remains steadfast and unchanging. Once He speaks in holiness, He does not retract His word (1 Samuel 15:29), “לא אדם הוא להנחם” (for He is not a human who would change his mind). The prayer of someone in distress, who pours out the bitterness of his complaint, crying out to high heaven, will therefore not cause the Eternal to change His decision concerning this person, for His thoughts are not those of a human being. Any prayer that a person directs toward God can therefore be effective in only two ways. If the person is wicked, his prayer may inspire him to return to the Eternal with all his heart abandoning his evil conduct, never to return to his folly again. And if he is righteous, his prayer may inspire him to increase his devotion to the Torah of the Eternal, continuing on the path of righteousness and ascending ever higher and higher. In either case, the bad that was coming to him may be averted, and the evil decree will be avoided, for having now changed himself into a new person, he is not the one upon whom the original judgment was rendered.
But Moses, at the end of his life, having already reached the pinnacle, had ascended the ladder to the house of God until he arrived at the highest level that any human could ever reach. He had become like one of the heavenly hosts “די מדרהון עם בשרא לא איתוהי” (whose dwelling is not with flesh) (Daniel 2:11), there being no room for him to ascend further. He therefore knew that to pray and to cry out would be futile, and that he would not be heard, having no means by which to avoid the judgment rendered upon him by saying: “this is not the one, for he has become another.” For, having become so great that he was almost like an angel, it was not in his power to elevate his soul any higher. Thus, prayer and supplication were futile for “נצח ישראל לא ישקר” )the Glory of Israel does not deceive) (I Samuel 15:29), “ולא איש א-ל ויכזב” )God is not a man that he should change his mind) (Numbers 23:19).
Moses therefore tried to approach God with a different maneuver and he besought “בעת ההיא” (at that time), when he was no longer able to ascend to an even higher spiritual level), so he said. “ה’ אלקים אתה החלילות להראות את עבדך את גדלך ואת ידך החזקה” (O, Eternal Lord, You have only begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your mighty hand), for who knows as I do that You perform wonders and Your name is great and mighty. If Your hand and your power are indeed unlimited, You can change my decree and show that You can indeed do anything — even change Your own earlier decree.” (This was the import of Rashi’s comment: “You are unlike a mortal king who is constrained by counselors who object when he wishes to show kindness and forego what is due him.”) But who can tell You what you should do? And if You are God, show that Your signs are true signs and that You have the power to do anything even to annul Your earlier decree. And if not, I will know that Your hand does not really rule over everything and that even Your deeds are limited and constrained.
This was the gratuitous gift that Moses begged for. He was asking not for kindness after transforming himself into a new person, but was asking to be given, as he was “at that time,” a gratuitous gift.
However, “גדל העצה ורב העליליה” (great in counsel and mighty in deed) (Jeremiah 32:19) the Ruler, infuriated at the master of the prophets, rebuked him emphatically for daring to approach the Eternal and to urge Him to change His trait. The Eternal therefore replied angrily to Moses:
“Enough, never again speak to Me of this matter,” to change My decision, “כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם” for My thoughts are not like your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8) . “ובהדי כבשי דרחמנא למה לך?” (why do you involve yourself with these secrets of the Merciful One?) (Berakhot 10a) Are they not the mysteries of the Master of the Universe, and how do you dare to bring them up?
All these matters are tightly packed in the Midrash quoted above (which is identical with Rashi’s comment that “beseeching” (חינון) is for a gratuitous gift, but differs from Rashi’s second explanation that “חינו” is one of the ten designations of prayer:
R. Johanan said from here it can be deduced that a creature has no claim upon his Creator. (Which means that one may never pray for a gratuitous gift, i.e., for the Creator to change His will.) For Moses, the master of all prophets, approached the Deity made use only of tahanunim (i.e., his prayer for a gratuitous gift that the Eternal change His decree that Moses must die in the desert.)
The Eternal therefore became incensed at him, and “בשצף קצף הסתיר פניו” )in an overflowing wrath He hid His face( (Isaiah 54:8) from Moses. A person should therefore pray only to inspire himself to repent, so that in that way he may be spared. (שביבי אש)
ונשב בגיא מול בית פעור ועתה ישראל
So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-Peor
Rashi comments: you participated in idol-worship, but if now “ועתה ישראל שמע אל החקים ואל המשפטים” you observe the commandments, then all will be forgiven you. But as for me, I was not privileged to be forgiven for my transgression.
This is a shocking statement. How could Moses say that all would be forgiven to them? Is it not written in the following verse (Deuteronomy 4:3): “כי כל האיש אשר חלך אחרי בעל פעור השמידו ה’ אלקיך מקרבך” (for every man that went after Ba’al Pe’or, your Eternal God has exterminated him from your midst)?
And our master explained that after the incident of Zimri, the people were roused to complain that it was not appropriate to create, for a minor infraction, internal strife and to shed the blood of a prince of Israel, thereby destroying peace and tranquility. For great is peace. And in this vein, our master explained the verses above (Numbers 25:1-3):
וישב העם בשיטים ויחל העם לזנות אל בנות מואב. ותקראן לעם לזבחי אלהיהן ויאכל העם וישתחוו לאלהיהן. ויצמד ישראל לבעל פעור ויחר אף ה’ בישראל (While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people partook of them and worshipped their gods. And Israel attached itself to Baal Peor; and the Lord was incensed against Israel.)
The Scripture changes from referring to “Israel” to “the people” and back to “Israel.” But here, as with the making of the calf, only the Mixed Multitude actively transgressed, and no Israelite worshipped Baal peor. Their sin was to remain silent and, to avoid strife, did not prevent the Mixed Multitude from transgressing. As a result, the scab spread, and the Mixed Multitude inferred that, since the Israelites did not protest, they must have approved. The Scripture therefore holds them as culpable as if they themselves had worshiped the idol. (This is similar to the Talmud (Shabbat 54a) which says that the cow of R. Eliezer went out on the Sabbath with a strap between its horns even though the cow really belonged to R. Eliezer’s neighbor. But since R. Eliezer did not protest, it was as if it had been his own cow.)
The Scripture should therefore be read as follows: “וישב ישראל בשטים” (While Israel was at Shittim). That is to say that they remained silent and did not take action against the evil-doers at the moment when “העם” (the people), i.e., the simplest and lowliest among them, began to commit the first transgression, “לזנות אל בנות מואב” )to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab). And when “the people” began to transgress and wantonly left the paths of uprightness, “Israel” remained silent. The “people” consequently sunk lower and lower “ותקראן לעם לזבחי אלהיהן” )and they invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods), and “the people” partook of those sacrifices, after which they “וישתחוו לאלהיהן” )they worshipped their gods). And because Israel did not prevent them from transgressing, the Scripture says “ויצמד ישראל לבעל פעור” (and Israel attached itself to Baal peor). That is, because of the silence of Israel, “the people” attached themselves to Baal peor, so that the guilt attached to Israel as well and “ויחר אף ה’ בישראל” (the Lord was incensed against Israel).
However, Phineas was of a different spirit, and he was jealous for the sake of the Eternal. And although he provoked a battle and a great uproar among the people, on high he restored peace between Israel and their Father in heaven Who forgave Israel. That is why he received the reward of the covenant of peace, measure for measure.
We now return to our subject. The lesson that emerges from our discussion is that the Children of Israel were quiet, because they did not want to provoke a battle and shatter the peace. Their intention was for the good of Israel, but they were mistaken. The transgression committed by Moses in the incident of the מי מריבת קדש according to the opinion of the Sages, was that, because of his great love for Israel, he erred and, confusing the instructions from Heaven, hit the rock instead of speaking to it. This is the meaning of “ונשב בגיא מול בית פעור” (so we remained in the valley opposite Beit peor), which means that we opposed the actions of the people who worshiped the Baal peor. Nevertheless, despite the sins of those who worshiped the Baal peor, everything will be forgiven you, because you did not actively transgress, sinning only by failing to rebuke those who did actively transgress. But they were rescued because their motivation was love of Israel, so that even though they erred, they were forgiven.
Moses therefore says, “but I,” also erring out of love for Israel, “was not privileged to be forgiven myself.” And Moses’s later statement: “for every man that went after Baal-peor, your Eternal God has exterminated him from your midst” was referring to those that actually worshiped the idol, because there can be no forgiveness for that offense, and it cannot be compared to the sin of Moses. (שביבי אש)
ושמרתם ועשיתם כי הוא חכמתכם ובִינתכם לעיני העמִים אשר ישׁמעון את כל החקים האלה ואמרו רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו א-להים קרבים אליו וכו’ ומי גוי גדול אשר לו חקִים ומשפטים צדיקם וכו
Observe them faithfully; for that will be proof of your wisdom and your discernment to the nations, who, on hearing of all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.
Everyone reading this verse must be amazed that it would say that, upon hearing hear the “חוקים” (statutes) that the Eternal has commanded the people of Israel, the nations will all respond and say what a wise and discerning nation (עם חכם ונבון) this is. For is it not the reverse? Are the חוקים not like a closed book, inexplicable? For example, why did the Eternal command us not to wear twisted cords (שעטנז) and not to eat any unclean thing, and all the rest? So, in fact, upon learning of these statutes, the Gentiles pour scorn and ridicule on the Children of Israel for upholding these commandments who cover their faces in shame when the Gentiles say of them “עם נבל ולא חכם” (a foolish and witless nation) — what reason or purpose do they have for observing these commandments?” Nor is there anyone in our midst who knows what to say to shift the embarrassment back to them.
But our master, in whose light we walk, explained the meaning of these verses in a marvelous way. For the commandments of the Torah, both the laws (משפטים) and the statutes (חוקים) can be separated into two categories: first, the negative commandments that we are obligated not to transgress, and concerning which the Scripture writes “השמר”; second, those positive commandments that the Eternal wants us to perform, concerning which the Scripture writes “לעשות”.
We also observe that people are distinguished from one another in their deportment and their characters. Some are quickly roused to do everything and perform all their actions enthusiastically because their hearts are passionate. Such people also become unruly, because their spirit is untamed and succumb easily to their desires. But there are also those who are cool tempered do not pursue their desires, because they are lazy and hold their spirit in check.
So, too, one can find an entire people occupying its own space and separated from their neighbors. In one nation, the people may be impassioned, their blood seething within them, and their souls carry them away to perform their deeds with fervor. For them it is easy to perform enthusiastically the tasks that they must carry out, because their desires burn like fire, which inspires them to do everything without becoming tired or weary. But set against this, it is very difficult for them to guard themselves against doing what may be sinful, because they cannot govern their wills when their desires are aflame. How can such a people be spared from sin?
And just the opposite of this type is a nation whose people are cool tempered. Their strength having been drained, they are effeminate, and their souls seek only to rest. It is not beyond them to refrain from doing evil, for their spirit is depressed and their desire is spent. Nor do they tend toward arrogance. But set against this, whatever they do, however important, is done without enthusiasm, and they collapse beneath the weight of burdens too heavy for them to bear.
However, wonders are evident among the people of Israel, who are holy unto the Eternal, for when they perform a commandment their souls are ablaze to perform their deeds with ardor. They seem to be fervent and their desire burns like a flame, and the Talmud (Beitzah 25b) calls Israel the most of impudent of the nations. But in spite of their passion, they guard their souls from every angle not to transgress any of God’s commandments, and they flee with alacrity from transgressions. This shows how carefully they guard their souls with extra precautions. It is as if they held a bit and a bridle in their hands to straighten their path before the Eternal. This is the soul that God made for them in a double portion to turn the inclination of their heart to all that they would desire, the soul given by the Almighty being a portion from the heavenly God inspiring them to understand the path to be followed leading them to righteousness and away from disarray and chaos.
These words are like precious stones glittering in the verse with which we began: “ושמרתם ועשיתם”. If you will be careful not to transgress the negative commandments or touch their edges and if you will also perform the positive commandments with all your heart, you will realize that that is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations. The Gentiles will hear these seemingly incomprehensible statutes and they will not understand how it is possible that a people whose souls burn like coals to perform those commandments to the fullest extent and to the utmost degree could, upon encountering any of the negative commandments, be so careful not to transgress the command of God, as if their desire had melted like wax exposed to fire. Will the nations not be compelled to sing their praise and say that this great nation is truly a wise and discerning people, because their wisdom enlightens them to walk justly and to turn the inclination of their hearts to the good.
And the explanation of the words “כי מי גוי גדול אשר לו אלהים קרובים אליו כה’ א-להנו בכל קראנו אליו” (for what great nation is there whose God is so close to it, as the our Eternal God is whenever we call upon Him) is that the love of Israel for Gםd is fervent — worshiping Him wholeheartedly, to fear Him, and to cling to him. With their fervent love, their souls will be exalted to draw close to Him and to enter His presence. And although they are a nation “פחז כמים” (as unstable as water), within whom there burns a fire, nevertheless, “מי גוי גדול אשר לו חקים ומשפטים צדיקים ככל התורה הזאת” )what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as this entire Torah(? For when they take such care not to transgress the prohibitions that the Eternal has laid down and they walk in righteousness and justice, will the nations not admit and proclaim that it is indeed a wise and discerning nation? (שביבי אש)
והיו הדברים האלה, אשר אנכי מצוך היום על לבבך. ושנַנתם לבניך, ודברת בם בשבתך בביתך וכו’
And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.
Rashi comments: “These words which I command you today” (אשר אנכי מצוְך היום): should not be viewed as an antiquated edict to which no one pays attention, but as newly given which everyone welcomes eagerly. And the word “ושננתם” (you shall teach them diligently) expresses the idea of being sharply impressed in your mind, so that if you are asked anything, you will not need to stammer about it, but can answer without hesitation.
Our master explains that Rashi teaches us a great lesson: that the Scripture commands Israel to exalt the Torah and make it a crown for their heads, so that, out of love for the Torah, one should review it constantly, to embellish it and beautify it. One will then always find a new and correct explanation (טעם נכון וחדש) on every subject and the Torah will appear in his eyes as new, not old and faded. For, as we see, precious gems always emerge from reasoning and argumentation. And whenever we reflect deeply to understand the depth of the halakhah, we find a new explanation, which accords with the opinion of Rav Yochanan (Taanit 9a) that everything is latent in the Torah and there nothing that is not hinted at in the Torah.
Now, as the Ramban wrote, the heart is the dwelling place of desire, and according to the Midrash, the reference to heart in this verse is to the source of desire as in (Psalms 66:3): “תַאות לבו נתתה לו” (You have given him his heart’s desire).
Thus, the verse “והיו הדברים האלה אשר אנכי מצוך היום על לבבך” (and these words which I command you this day shall be in your heart) means that the desire of your heart should be upon the words of the Torah as upon something new that a man is desirous of, and it should not be like an old long kept doctrine. And how does one achieve this desire? By “teaching them diligently to your children and speaking of them” so that one should impress them sharply upon his children to teach them proper reasoning, which will enable him always to find an appropriate explanation for everything. But this is contrary to the explanation of Rashi who writes that if a person asks you anything about the Torah, you should not need to stammer, but can explain it without hesitation.” For you achieve this by reviewing the Torah many times until you will know it by heart. However, here the Scripture is admonishing us to sharpen our minds like a threshing-sledge (כמורג חרוץ) (Isaiah 41:15) by reasoning and discussing with our students who sharpen their masters and teachers in halakhah, as R Hanina said (Taanit 7a): “הרבה למדתי מרבותי ומחבירי יותר מרבותי ומתלמידי יותר מכולן” (I have learnt much from m masters, but more from my friends, but most of all from my students). That is why the Scripture writes “ושננתם לבניך” (and you shall teach them diligently to your children), i.e., to the students who are called children, for by means of discussion with students, the Torah “תתחדש כנשר נעוריכי” )will be renewed like the youth of an eagle) (Psalms 103:5), “חדשים לבקרים” (and they are renewed every morning). (שביבי אש)