וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל-יְהוָה, בָּעֵת הַהִוא
And I besought the Lord at that time (Deuteronomy 3:23)
Rashi comments: All forms of the word "חינון" (beseeching) signify a gratuitous gift.
In the Midrash (Deuternonomy Rabbah 2:1) it is written: R. Johanan said: Prayer is known by ten designations. . . . And of all of these designations of prayer, Moses made use only of תחנונים (beseeching), as it is written "and I besought the Lord" (וָאֶתְחַנַּן אֶל ה'). 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 תחנונים.
Now this discussion is very obscure, for is it not apparent that the prophets and seers, the righteous of every generation, poured out their supplications to the Eternal using many different expressions? For example: "and Isaac entreated the Lord opposite his wife" (וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה' לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ) (Genesis 25:21); "and Phineas stood up and interposed' (וַיַּעֲמֹד פִּינְחָס, וַיְפַלֵּל) (Psalms 106:30); "and Solomon prayed' (וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל שְׁלֹמֹה) (1 Kings 8:22). And Moses also said (Deuteronomy 9:18) "then I lay prostrate before the Lord." (וָאֶתְנַפַּל לִפְנֵי ה'). 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): "Let it suffice you; speak to Me no more of this matter." Was it not sufficient that He did not accept Moses's prayer? Why did He also pour out His fiery wrath and shout at Moses in anger? What was this about and why did this happen? What was the reason for this great anger?
Now see how our master explained this and enlightened us in a wonderful manner. For we know that the G-d of the universe remains steadfast and does not change. And once He has spoken in holiness, He will not retract His word, "for He is not a man, that He should repent" (lo adam hu l'hinaheim) (1 Samuel 15:29). And the prayer that someone in distress utters, pouring out the bitterness of his complaint, even calling out to high heaven, will not cause the Eternal to change His decision concerning this person, for His thoughts are not the thoughts of a human being. Any prayer that a person may direct toward his G-d can, thus, have an effect in only two ways. If the person is wicked, his prayer may inspire him to return to the Eternal with all his heart and abandon his evil path, never again to return to his folly. And if he is righteous, his prayer may inspire him to increase his devotion to the Torah of the Eternal, and to continue on the path of righteousness, ascending ever higher and higher. In either case, the bad that was coming to him may be averted, and the evil decree will not befall him, for now, having changed himself into a new person, he is not the man against whom the original judgment was rendered.
But Moses, at the end of his life, had already reached the pinnacle. He had ascended the ladder that rises to the house of G-d until he arrived at the highest level that a human being could ever reach. He had become like one of the heavenly hosts "whose dwelling is not with flesh" (דִּי מְדָרְהוֹן עִם בִּשְׂרָא לָא אִיתוֹהִי) (Daniel 2:11). There was no room for him to ascend any further. He therefore knew that to pray and to cry out would be futile and that he would not be heard, because he had no means by which to avoid the judgment that had been rendered upon him by saying: "this is not the one, 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 further. Thus, prayer and supplication were futile "for G-d is not a man that he should lie" ( וְלֹא אִישׁ אֵל וִיכַזֵּב) (Numbers 23:19).
Moses therefore went out to approach G-d with a different maneuver and he besought "at that time" (when he could no longer reach a higher spiritual level) and he said.
O Lord, G-d, Thou hast only begun to show Thy servant Thy greatness, and Thy mighty hand, for who knows as I do that Thou dost perform wonders and Thy name is great and mighty. If Thy hand is not shortened, do this deed to change my decree for the better to show that Thou canst do anything even change Thine earlier decree." (And this was the import of Rashi's comment: "Thou art unlike a mortal king who has counselors and assessors who would prevent him when he wishes to show kindness and to forego what is due him.") But who can tell Thee what to do? And if Thou art G-d, show that Thy signs are true signs and that Thou hast the power to do anything even to annul Thine earlier decree. And if not I will know that Thy hand does not rule over everything and that even Thy deeds are limited and confined.
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, "great in counsel and mighty in work" (גְּדֹל הָעֵצָה וְרַב הָעֲלִילִיָּה) (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. And in anger, the Eternal replied to Moses:
Let it suffice thee; speak to Me no more of this matter to change My decision, for My thoughts are not like your thoughts. What have you to do with these secrets of the Merciful One? Are they not the mysteries of the Master of the Universe, and how dare you seek to rise up?
Now all these matters are tightly packed in the Midrash that is quoted above (which is identical with Rashi's comment that "beseeching" (חינון) is for a gratuitous gift, but differs from the second explanation of Rashi that hinun is one of the ten designations of prayer):
R. Johanan said from here one can deduce 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 should change His decree that Moses should die in the desert. )
The Eternal therefore became incensed at him, and "in an overflowing wrath" (בְּשֶׁצֶף קֶצֶף) He hid His face (Isaiah 54:8) from Moses. A person should therefore only pray to inspire himself to repent, and by repenting he may be cured.
וַנֵּשֶׁב בַּגָּיְא מוּל בֵּית פְּעוֹר וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל
So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-Peor (Deuteronomy 3:29)
Rashi comments: and you associated yourself with idol-worship, yet, however, "now, O, Israel, hearken unto the statutes" (וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁמַע אֶל הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים) and everything will be forgiven you. But I - I was not privileged that it was forgiven me.
And this is a shocking wonder. How could he say "and everything will be forgiven you"? Is it not written in the immediately following verse (Deuteronomy 4:3): "for every man that went after בַעַל פְּעוֹר, the Lord thy G-d hath exterminated him from you"?
And it appears to our master that after the incident of Zimri, the people were roused to complain that for a minor infraction it was not appropriate to create 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):
And Israel abode in Shittim and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel.
The Scripture changes from referring to "Israel" to "the people" and back to "Israel." However, here as with the making of the calf only the Mixed Multitude actively transgressed, while no one who was called an Israelite went after the בַעַל פְּעוֹר. Their only sin was that they were silent and did not prevent the Mixed Multitude from transgressing in order to avoid strife. 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 which says that the cow of R. Eliezer went out on the Sabbath with a strap between its horns even though the cow belonged to R. Eliezer's neighbor. But since R. Eliezer did not protest it is as if it were his own cow.)
The Scripture should therefore be read as follows: "And Israel abode in Shittim" (וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּשִּׁטִּים). They remained quiet and did not go out to do battle against the evil-doers at the moment when - "the people" (הָעָם), i.e., the simplest and lowliest among them, began to commit the first transgression, "harlotry with the daughters of Moab" (לִזְנוֹת אֶל-בְּנוֹת מוֹאָב). And when "the people" began to transgress wantonly and left the paths of uprightness, "Israel" remained idle. The "people" consequently sunk lower and lower "and they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods" (וַתִּקְרֶאןָ לָעָם לְזִבְחֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶן) and "the people" ate the sacrifices of the dead, after which they "bowed down to their gods" (וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶן). And because Israel did not prevent them from transgressing, the Scripture says "and Israel joined himself unto the Baal-peor" (וַיִּצָּמֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל לְבַעַל פְּעוֹר). That is, by virtue of their silence, they also joined themselves to the בַעַל פְּעוֹר, so that the guilt attaches to them as well. Therefore, "the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel."
However, Phineas was of a different spirit, and he was jealous for the sake of the Eternal. And although it is true that he provoked a battle and a great uproar among the people, but 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.
Now let us return to our subject. The lesson that emerges from our discussion is the children of Israel were quiet because they did not want to provoke a battle and disturb the peace. Their intention was for the good of Israel, but they were mistaken. Now 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 he confused the instructions from Heaven and hit the rock instead of speaking to it. This is the meaning of "and we abode in the valley over against בֵּית פְּעוֹר" which means against the actions of the people who worshiped the בַעַל פְּעוֹר. Nevertheless, "and now, O Israel, everything will be forgiven you," because they did not actively transgress, but sinned only by rebuking those who did actively transgress. But they were rescued because their motivation was love of Israel. And even though they erred, they were forgiven. "But I," who also erred out of love for Israel, "I was not privileged that it was forgiven me." And Moses's later statement: "for every man that went after Baal-peor, the Lord thy G-d hath exterminated him from you" was referring to those that actually worshiped the idol. For that offense there can be no forgiveness, and it also has no comparison to the sin of Moses.
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן אֵת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹ, הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה כִּי מִי גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ אֱלֹהִים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו וכו' וּמִיגּוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם וכו'
Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people (Deuteronomy 4:6-8)
Now everyone who reads this verse must be amazed that it says that when the nations hear the "חוקים" (statutes) that the Eternal has commanded to the people of Israel that they will all respond and say together what a wise and understanding nation (עַם חָכָם וְנָבוֹן) 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 (שַׁעַטְנֵז) and not to eat any unclean thing, and all the rest? So when they learn of these statutes, the gentiles pour scorn and ridicule on the Children of Israel who uphold these commandments and cover their faces in shame when the gentiles say of them: "A foolish nation, not a wise one. What reason is there for these commandments? And what purpose do they serve?" And there is no one in our midst who knows what to say that will shift the embarrassment back to them.
And behold 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 concerning which it is written "השמר" that we are obligated to keep ourselves from transgressing; and second, those positive commandments that the Eternal wants us to perform "לעשות". Now we may observe that people are distinguished from one another in their deportment and in their characters. There are some who are quickly roused to do everything and perform all their actions enthusiastically because their hearts are passionate. But they also become unruly, because their spirit is untamed and always succumb to their desires. And there are those who are of a cold temperament who do not pursue their desires, because they are lazy and their spirit is held 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 cold in temperament. 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 consumed. 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. So it seems that they are fervent and their desire burns like a flame, and the Talmud says that Israel is the most passionate of nations. But in spite of their passion, they guard their souls from every angle not to transgress any of G-d'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. And this is the soul that G-d made for them in a double portion to turn the inclination of their heart to all that they would desire, for the soul given by the Almighty is a portion from the heavenly G-d to inspire them to understand the way that they should follow and to lead them in righteousness.
Now all these words are like precious stones glittering in the verse with which we began, "וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם". If you will be careful not to transgress the negative commandments or touch their edges and you will also perform the positive commandments with all your heart, you will understand that that is your wisdom and understanding 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 G-d, as if their desire had melted like wax exposed to fire. Will the nations not perforce be compelled to sing their praise and say, "For truly a wise and understanding people is this great nation," because their wisdom will illuminate their faces to walk justly and to turn the inclination of their hearts to the good.
And the explanation of the words "For what great nation is there whose G-d is so close to it, as the Lord our G-d is whenever we call upon Him" is that the love of Israel for G-d is fervent - to worship Him wholeheartedly, to fear Him, and to cling to him. And with the fervor of their love, their souls will be exalted to draw close to Him and to enter His presence. And even though they are a nation as unstable as water, and within them there burns a fire, nevertheless, "what great nation is there that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as this entire Torah?" For when they are so careful not to transgress the prohibitions that the Eternal has laid down and they walk in righteousness and justice, must the nations not admit and proclaim that it is a wise nation?
וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם--עַל-לְבָבֶךָ. ז וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ 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. (Deuteronomy 6:7)
Rashi comments: "These words which I command you this day" (אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם): they should not be in your eyes as an antiquated edict which no one minds, but as one newly given which everyone rushes to welcome. "And thou shalt teach them diligently" (וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם): This word expresses the idea of being sharply impressed in your mouth, so that if a person asks you anything, you will not need to stammer about it, but tell it forthwith.
And 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. And 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, and it is like a community in which everything can be found (Hulin 56b). Nor is there anything for which there is no hint in the Torah.
Now the heart is the dwelling place of desire, as the Ramban wrote: According to the Midrash the heart which is mentioned here is the source of desire as in (Psalms 21:3): "Thou hast given him his heart's desire" (תַּאֲוַת לִבּוֹ, נָתַתָּה לּוֹ).
Thus, the verse "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, you will not need to stammer about it, but tell it forthwith." 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 with one's students who sharpen their masters and teachers in halakhah. That is why the Scripture writes, "and you shall teach them diligently to your children," i.e., to the students, the young sheep, who are called children, for by means of discussion with students the youth of the Torah is renewed like an eagle (Psalms 103:5), "they are new every morning" (Lamentations 3:23).