In the realm of profound and fruitful parshiyot, Va-et’chanan looms large. In one stream of chapters, we both relive Revelation — the Ten Commandments — and receive the most succinct summary of our emerging theology — the Sh’ma. And yet, even before we reach these transformational texts, Va-et’chanan captures our attention.
Moses, distraught by his looming loss of position and facing his own mortality in the midst of leadership transition, begins the portion by sharing with the people an emotional personal exchange with the Eternal.
As we read through the interchange between Moses and God, we discover that these verses represent a compact example of an ask for forgiveness, a response, and the ensuing outcomes. The flow of the conversation is as follows:
Preparation - “I pleaded with the Eternal at that time, saying ...” (Deut. 3:23)
Flattery - “O Eternal God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!” (Deut.3:24)
Ask - “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” (Deut. 3:25)
Response 1: emotional consequence - “But the Eternal was wrathful with me on your account and would not listen to me. The Eternal One said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!’” (Deut. 3:26)
Response 2: concession - Go up to the summit of Pisgah and gaze about, to the west, the north, the south, and the east. Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan. (Deut. 3:27)
Response 3: practical consequence - “Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.” (Deut. 3:28)
Conclusion - “Meanwhile we stayed on in the valley near Beth-peor.” (Deut. 3:29)
The recognition of this moment as Moses’ plea for forgiveness and God’s response becomes more meaningful when we remember that Parashat Va-et’chanan always aligns with Shabbbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation. Beginning on Shabbat Nachamu, we count seven weeks to Rosh HaShanah; seven weeks until we will collectively and individually stand before the Eternal and ask for forgiveness. On each Shabbat of those seven weeks, we read a different haftarah of consolation from Isaiah. These are seven haftarot that emphasize God’s compassion, capacity for forgiveness, and continued covenant with the people of Israel. Shabbat Nachamu is named not only for the conceptual content of the haftarah, but also from the opening words of haftarat Va-et’chanan itself: “Comfort My people, comfort them,” Nachamu, nachamu ami. The connection between the Torah text of Va-et’chanan and the idea of comfort and consolation is traditionally tied to a later section in our portion, Deuteronomy 4:25-31, which foreshadows yet another instance of sin and redemption for the people of Israel:
"When you have begotten children and children's children and are long established in the land, should you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Eternal your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. The Eternal will scatter you among the peoples, and only a scant few of you shall be left among the nations to which the Eternal will drive you. There you will serve gods of wood and stone, made by human hands, that cannot see or hear or eat or smell. But if you search there, you will find the Eternal your God, if only you seek with all your heart and soul— when you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and, in the end, return to and obey the Eternal your God. For the Eternal your God is a compassionate God, who will not fail you nor let you perish; [God] will not forget the covenant made on oath with your fathers." (Deut. 4:25-31; italics are mine)
While this later section certainly highlights the theme of communal failure and Eternal compassion, Moses’ disclosure at the opening of the portion prepares each of us for this process from a much more personal perspective. While the Yamim Nora-im, the High Holidays, will always exist against the backdrop of collective repentance, each one of us must also engage in our own personal cheshbon hanefesh, “accounting of the soul.” Each of us must look within, and attempt to identify what feels out of balance and what we feel called upon to change in our lives. Then we must reach out to others and our own understandings of God with genuine requests for forgiveness. In Parashat Va-et’chanan, it is Moses’ piercing interchange with God that reminds us of the individual work that begins on Shabbat Nachamu.
There are numerous Rabbinic, contemporary, and psychological commentaries that grapple with and imaginatively expand on this particular moment between Moses and God. Does Moses truly feel remorse for his actions or even really understand his error? Is God’s wrath at Moses justified? And why does Moses choose to publicly share this particular encounter with God as opposed to any of the others in which he seemingly plays a more valiant role?
And yet, from within the depth of complexity that surrounds these few verses, we can glean some sources of inspiration and guidance as we each ready ourselves to seek forgiveness.
1. Maintain hope
Based on the g’matria of the word va-et’chanan, D’varim Rabbah 11:10 teaches us that Moses pleaded with God 515 times to forgive him and allow him to enter the Land. The idea of asking for forgiveness can be daunting, and we may not succeed the first time. Moses’ (admittedly hyperbolic) persistence can remind us that we may need to view the project of repentance as a process rather than a transaction.
2. Embrace humility
Why does Moses choose to divulge his conversation with God at this moment? In Hilchot T’shuvah 2:5, Maimonides explains the benefits of sharing publicly pieces of our cheshbon hanefesh:
“It is very praiseworthy for a person who repents to confess in public and to make his sins known to others. … Anyone who, out of pride, conceals his sins and does not reveal them will not achieve complete repentance as [Proverbs 28:13] states: ‘He who conceals his sins will not succeed.’” (Mishneh Torah: Sefer Hamadah - Book of Knowledge, Hilchot T’shuvah 2:5)
Perhaps our biblical Moses is using the very act of public sharing to demonstrate his remorse, his regret, and his understanding. Perhaps each of us should consider with whom is it appropriate to share some pieces of our process. Could verbalizing some of our cheshbon hanefesh out loud to an intimate group help us to work through and acknowledge some of our challenges with genuine humility?
3. Ask appropriately
In Kedushat Levi, Deuteronomy, Va-et’chanan 1, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev examines the syntax of Deuteronomy 3:23 to elucidate the timing of Moses’ request:
“‘I pleaded with Hashem at that time, to say’ [Deut. 3:23]. The word l’eimor [to say], after we have been told that Moses pleaded with Hashem appears totally superfluous... In light of this, it appears that the correct interpretation of this verse is that prior to Moses’ praying to God on his own behalf he pleaded with Hashem to ensure that He was in a receptive mood for the prayer that would follow. This is also why the Torah added the words: b’eit ha-hi [at that time], to teach us that before that time Moses felt too ashamed to offer entreaty or prayer on his own behalf.” (Kedushat Levi: Torah Commentary by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, vol. 3 [Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2009])
Levi Yitzchak emphasizes that both God and Moses needed to be ready in order for this conversation to have a chance of success. As we imagine and prepare our own requests for forgiveness, let us remember to consider the appropriate timing. Are we ready to articulate our understanding of the situation? Is the other person involved in this conversation ready to hear our request?
4. Initiate introspection
Finally, perhaps the most poignant and relevant aspect of Moses’ dialogue occurs in the very first word, Va-et’chanan, and I pleaded [with God]. Sifrei D’varim 26:7 immediately clarifies that here, the verb chanan means "prayer." Before Moses even began to speak or make his appeal, he took a moment to prepare. Here the very beginning of our portion coincides directly with the very beginning of our process.
As we embark on the next seven weeks leading into our Yamim Nora-im, may we approach our own paths to repentance with the emotional honesty of Moses our teacher and his last great plea.
The arrival of Parashat Va-et’chanan on Shabbat Nachamu reminds us that effective prayer is best achieved when we take the time to focus and organize our thoughts. This advice serves us well as we approach the upcoming Yamim Nora-im, a period of preparation and sanctity that launches amidst a series of structured countdowns.
We begin with this week’s entry into the seven haftarot of consolation. These readings from the prophets emphasize God’s compassion and ability to forgive. In a few weeks, we will spend the entire month of Elul awakening our souls with the calls of the shofar. Finally, most Ashkenazic communities will commence an additional pre–High Holiday warm-up on the Saturday evening prior to Rosh Hashanah with Selichot. This service of penitential prayers explores God’s capacity to forgive transgression, iniquity, and sin while echoing much of the liturgy that will be said later on during Yom Kippur. In the Sephardic tradition, these prayers are said throughout the month of Elul.
In Parashat Va-et’chanan, Moses formulates his own personal quest to seek God’s forgiveness. In doing so, he creates a model for members of the Jewish community to follow as they seek repentance and forgiveness. Prayer can be a daunting endeavor. We often do not know where to begin. If we follow the blueprint crafted by Moses in this week’s portion as outlined by Cantor Sacks, preparation and flattery precede the eventual ask.
As Sifrei D’varim 26:7 clarifies, the title verb of our parashah — chanan — means prayer. It is fitting that the Torah portion bearing this name is the one that contains some of Judaism’s most fundamental teachings — the Sh’ma (Deut 6:4) and (most of) V’ahavta (Deut 6:5-9; Num.15:40-41). When we say these words in a prayer service, they are part of a rubric that is similar to the one that Moses uses in this week’s portion. We prepare with the Bar’chu, our call to worship. We rise in reverence as our bodies, voices, and minds get ready to pray. Next, we praise God’s wondrous creations in Yotzer, flattering God with descriptions of the beautiful world that God created. When we continue with the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, we highlight God’s teachings as we utter the watchword of the Jewish faith.
Rabbi David Hartman describes the Sh’ma as being representative of the partnership between the Jewish people and God. “In reciting the Shema, we hear God addressing the community,” he writes. “It is the moment of commitment of the community to God and to God’s Torah” (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol 3 [NY:UAHC Press, 1995], p.112). This reminds us that even though we each pray as individuals, it is important for us to do so within the context of our greater community. It is community that plays an important role in the next prayer in our service as we celebrate our collective freedom and redemption with Mi Chamochah.
After all of this, we are finally ready to ask. In worship, the ask comes in the form of the Amidah. This prayer is so central to our faith that we often refer to it as the T’filah, the Prayer. The Amidah gives us concrete themes to reflect upon during worship, including forgiveness, wellness, peace, and gratitude. It also gives us time for t'filat halev — the personal prayers of our hearts.
During the Yamim Nora-im, our Machzor presents a similar balance between structured communal liturgy and personal prayer. In Reform liturgy, the cantor begins Rosh HaShanah worship with the Hineni prayer in which she asks for the ability lead her congregation towards repentance. To balance the need to accommodate both individual and communal needs Mishkan HaNefesh includes a parallel prayer that enables individual worshippers time for personal preparation and reflection.
Even as we pray individually, as Moses did at the beginning of Va-et’chanan, it is important to remind ourselves that we all matter — by our words, our demeanor, and our intention — to the success of the prayers of the entire community. Let the examples offered by Moses and by the Sh’ma and her blessings guide us over next seven weeks, into Elul, and towards the High Holidays themselves as we prepare to become our best selves in 5780.
Va-et’chanan, Deuteronomy 3:23–7:11
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,333–1,378; Revised Edition, pp. 1,184–1,221
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 1,063–1,088
First Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 40:1–26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,595–1,598; Revised Edition, pp. 1,222–1,225