Vol 24.04 - Va'etchanan 1        Spanish French Audio  Video

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(5742) Debate between Sifrei and Midrash Rabbah (Deut 3:23 Beg of Parsha) if the two explanations of "Va'etchanan" (I entreated) 

 1) an expression signifying requesting a free gift
 2) an expression of prayer

- are two views or one view


The Proper Manner of Prayer

The Torah portion Vaes’chanan derives its name from its first word, Vaes’chanan, which according to the Midrash1 is a derivative of both chinun or “supplication,” and chinam or “free” — something done freely and not from any sense of obligation.

According to the Midrash , the opening verses of the Torah portion thus consist of Moshe’s plea that he be permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael , a petition that he based not upon his own merit, but which he sought as a matnas chinam , a gratuitous gift from G‑d.

The Midrash goes on to state that, since even Moshe found it necessary to supplicate G‑d for an unearned gift, and did not ask that his request be granted in view of his many achievements, we can conclude that no created being has the ability to make demands of his Creator.

Why should we pray as if we have no merits upon which to base our requests?

There are two factors involved in asking that G‑d fulfill a request or provide something that is needed: The manner in which the request is made — supplication or demand; and the reason that G‑d should fulfill the request — that the person is deserving, or as a free gift.

Since G‑d is the Creator of all beings, it is reasonable to assume that He also has a moral obligation to provide them with their needs, especially so since He is “merciful unto all His creatures.”2 The Jew especially, filled as he is with good deeds and accomplishments, is deserving that G‑d provide him with all manner of good.

Accordingly, yet another question may be posed: Why is it even necessary to pray for the fulfillment of one’s needs, when man is also one of G‑d’s creations, and thus inherently entitled to have his needs met? And this question seems pertinent if one possesses merits and accomplishments that stand him in good stead.

The reason is as follows: Even when G‑d provides for a person’s needs because that person is deserving or because He is merciful, He is in no way obligated to do so. The verse expresses this explicitly when it states:3 “Unto You, G‑d, is kindness, for You repay each individual according to his actions.”

This informs us that, even if an individual’s good deeds make him worthy of G‑d’s blessings, Divine beneficence must still be considered a kindness, for nothing can compel G‑d to act in a certain manner; His answering of a need or granting of a request is ultimately an act of kindness.

This also explains why it is necessary to petition G‑d; one can demand nothing from Him, but must instead plead that He grant any request as an undeserved gift.

This is also in accord with the saying of our Sages4 that one should not make the fulfillment of his prayer dependent upon his merits, for even when G‑d fulfills a request as a result of a person’s meritorious deeds, “no created being can rightfully make demands of his Creator,”5 since man’s actions are wholly insignificant in relation to G‑d. Thus, one must always petition G‑d for a matnas chinam , a gratuitous gift.

In a more profound sense, Moshe wanted to enter Eretz Yisrael so as to draw down upon the Jewish people a level of G‑dliness far loftier than that which is generally drawn down through man’s service — a boundless, free gift from Above far beyond man’s supplications.6 Moshe was unsuccessful in his quest, for G‑d’s intent is that holiness be drawn down as a result of man’s service.

Although the denial of Moshe’s petition resulted in the possibility of further exiles, G‑d still desires man’s service, for it is this service that draws down an unsurpassed degree of G‑dliness — a level even greater than that of a matnas chinam.7

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXIV, pp. 28-35

From https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/92929/jewish/Vaeschanan-The-Proper-Manner-of-Prayer.htm
1.    Midrash Rabbah on this verse.
2.    Tehillim 145:9.
3.    Ibid., 62:13.
4.    Berachos 10b.
5.    Midrash Rabbah loc. cit.
6.    See Likkutei Torah, Devarim, p. 3a, 3c.
7.    See Or HaTorah, Vaes’chanan p. 65ff.



What is Prayer?
The Rambam describes prayer as follows:1

The obligation this commandment entails is to offer supplication and prayer every day; to praise the Holy One, blessed be He, and afterwards to petition for all one’s needs with requests and supplications, and then to give praise and thanks to G‑d for the goodness that He has bestowed.

The fundamental dimension of prayer is to ask G‑d for our needs. The praise and thanksgiving which precede and follow these requests is merely a supplementary element of the mitzvah.2 A person must realize that G‑d is the true source for all sustenance and blessing, and approach Him with heartfelt requests.3

Often, however, we do not content ourselves with asking for our needs. We desire bounty far beyond both our needs and our deserts. We request a boon that reflects G‑d’s boundless generosity. For every Jew is as dear to G‑d as is an only child born to parents in their old age.4 And because of that inner closeness, He grants us favors that surpass our needs and our worth.

Two Interpretations of Moshe’s Plea
These concepts are reflected in the name of this week’s Torah reading, Vaes’chanan. Vaes’chanan means “and he pleaded,” referring to Moshe’s petition to enter Eretz Yisrael.5 Our Sages’ interpretation of this term provides us with guidance with regard to the way we should approach G‑d in prayer. The Sifri states:6

Moshe could have depended… on his good deeds. Instead, he asked G‑d for a gift…. How much more so, lesser men should make requests of G‑d in this manner. Alternatively, vaes’chanan is one of the ten terms used for prayer.

The Midrash communicates similar concepts, stating:7

This is one of the ten terms used for prayer. Of them all, Moshe adopted this approach, one of supplication. From this, we can learn that no created being can make demands from its Creator, for even Moshe approached G‑d in a tone of supplication, asking for a free gift.

Everything is Kindness
Although there is a similarity between the statements of the Sifri and the Midrash, the commentaries8 note a distinction between them. For the Sifri sees the concept of prayer and that of requesting a free gift as two different interpretations, while the Midrash fuses the two concepts into a single understanding.

To focus on this distinction more closely: G‑d is “merciful to all His works,”9 giving each its sustenance as required. Moreover, when a person’s deeds are worthy, he is assured:10 “If you follow My laws… I will provide you with rain at the appropriate time….”11 Therefore, a person might have grounds to believe that he deserves G‑d’s assistance.

But even in such a situation, prayer is necessary, as reflected by the verse:12 “Kindness is Yours, for You render to every man according to his deeds.” Although a person’s conduct may be worthy of Divine blessing, since G‑d transcends the material realm, for His beneficence to be enclothed in material form requires a unique measure of kindness. And this kindness is evoked by prayer.

Therefore, there is no way a person can demand favor from G‑d. At all times, he must make requests of Him, as one might ask for a present.

This allows us to understand the interpretation of the Midrash mentioned previously. Vaes’chanan teaches us the manner in which we should make petitions of G‑d. When asking for His goodness, one should plead with humility; even when deserving, a person should not rely on his merits, but should ask G‑d for His generosity and kindness.

Not Only a Humble Tone, a Humble Heart
The first interpretation cited in the Sifri asks for a deeper commitment. Not only should humility characterize the manner in which one approaches G‑d, it should permeate one’s being. A person should genuinely feel that he is asking for a favor which he does not deserve. For regardless of the virtue of his deeds, there is always a higher standard which could be demanded of him. Therefore his request is for “a free gift,” unearned kindness.13

This approach was personified by Moshe, whom the Torah describes14 as “more humble than any man on the face of the earth.” Moshe realized his own positive virtues, but also understood that these virtues were granted to him by G‑d, and felt that had they been granted to another individual, that person might have accomplished even more than he.15

When Can a Heavenly Decree be Changed?
There is more to the difference in interpretation between the Midrash and the Sifri. Moshe was praying to enter Eretz Yisrael. Although G‑d had previously decreed that he would not enter the Holy Land, after the conquests of the land of Sichon and Og, Moshe thought that perhaps G‑d would relent.16

There is a difference of opinion among our Sages17 as to whether prayer can have an effect after a negative decree has been issued from Above, or only beforehand. The Midrash follows the view that prayer can avert a harsh decree even after it has been issued. Therefore Moshe was able to approach G‑d through one of the accepted forms of prayer.

The first opinion in the Sifri, by contrast, follows the view that prayer can usually help only before a decree has been issued, but not afterwards. Therefore Moshe had to go beyond the normal approach to prayer and ask for a free gift.18

Reaching Above Our Grasp
Chassidic thought explains Moshe’s request for “a free gift” as follows: Had Moshe been permitted to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael, he would have been able to draw forth a level of G‑dly revelation which our ordinary Divine service cannot reach. For there are limits to the spiritual peaks man can reach through his own efforts; attainment of the highest levels depends solely on G‑d’s initiative.

These levels cannot be reached by the standard approach to prayer, for normal prayer centers on man’s efforts to refine himself and his environment. Therefore Moshe asked for “a free gift.”

Doing More Than We Can
G‑d did not grant Moshe’s request because even the highest levels of revelation are not simply given as “free gifts,” but must be “earned” by man through his Divine service. The service required to draw down such levels, however, is not one that man can conceive or plot out on his own. It was beyond even Moshe’s conception. Instead, it is G‑d who charts this pattern of service, and with this intent He has led the Jewish people on our odyssey through history.

For this reason, Moshe’s prayer was not accepted, and it was Yehoshua who led the Jews into Eretz Yisrael. Although this “lesser” leadership brought with it the possibility of another exile, this was part of the Divine plan to enable mankind to carry out the service necessary to bring about the Redemption. For it is the Divine service of ordinary men confronting everyday life which will make Redemption a reality.

Parshas Vaes’chanan is always read on Shabbos Nachamu, “the Shabbos of comfort.” The true comfort for the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the exile is the realization that these are milestones on the road to ultimate Redemption. Leading us on a course that defies mortal understanding, G‑d enables man to become His partner in creation,19 and make the world a dwelling which they will share.

From https://www.chabad.org/therebbe/article_cdo/aid/82731/jewish/In-the-Garden-of-the-Torah-Vaeschanan.htm

Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXII, pgs. 115-117;
Vol. XXIV, p. 28ff


1.    Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Tefillah 1:2.
2.    This is reflected in the wording used by the Rambam, and the interpretation of his position by the Sefer HaChinuch (mitzvah 233). Note, however, the wording of the Shulchan Aruch HaRav 185:2, which refers to the recitation of G‑d’s praise as the “fundamental element of prayer.”
3.    In this vein, we can understand the connection to the Rambam’s opening statement in Hilchos Tefillah 1:1 that prayer is “the service of the heart,” i.e., the shaping of one’s feelings. For what affects people most are their material needs, and appreciating and asking G‑d for these matters requires a redefinition of one’s inner feelings.
4.    Keser Shem Tov, Hosafos, sec. 133.
5.    Deuteronomy 3:23.
6.    Commenting on the above verse, quoted (with slight changes) in Rashi’s commentary to the verse.
7.    Devarim Rabbah 2:1; Midrash Tanchuma, Vaes’chanan, sec. 3.
8.    Chizkuni on Deuteronomy 3:23; Levush on Rashi’s commentary to that verse.
9.    Psalms 85:1. Note Kesubos 67b; Bava Metzia 85a.
10.    In particular, a unique measure of Divine beneficence is assured the Jewish people, as reflected by our Sages’ statement (Bava Metzia 83a): Since they are the descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, even the feasts of King Shlomo at the height of his opulence are not sufficient recompense for them.
11.    Leviticus 26:3. In an expanded sense, rain includes all material needs. גשם , Hebrew for “rain,” shares the same root as גשמיות , “material substance.”
12.    Psalms 62:13.
13.    In this context, the Sifri’s statement that Moshe could have depended on his good deeds must be interpreted to mean that, according to mankind’s prevailing understanding, Moshe could have depended on the virtue of his deeds. Moshe himself, however, had deeper knowledge, and therefore greater humility, and made his requests as a petition for a present (Maharik).
14.    Numbers 12:3.
15.    See Maamarei Admur HaZakein 5562, Vol. II, p. 51, and the explanation of this concept in the above essay, entitled “Pride that Runs Deeper Than Self.”
16.    Rashi, commenting on Deuteronomy 3:23.
17.    Rosh HaShanah 17b.
18.    See also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVI, p. 277, which explains that when individuals who possess merit appeal to G‑d’s kindness without depending on their virtues, they evoke a measure of Divine favor which surpasses the natural order.
19.    Cf. Shabbos 10a.



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