Thursday, September 20, 2018

why Klal Yisrael's tefilah could not save Moshe from dying

Please have in mind that this limud should be a zechus for a refuah sheleimah for Shulamis bas Sarah Sascha.

At the end of the parsha (32:48) Hashem told Moshe to go "b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh," this very day, up to Har Nevo, to look out over the Land, and then and to die.

Rashi points out that there are three places where the Torah uses this expression of "b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh."  The common denominator between them is that in all three places there was a hava amina by human beings to try to stop G-d, and G-d responded by carrying out his plans in the middle of the day to demonstrate that no force can stop him.  When G-d was about to bring the flood, the dor ha'mabul threatened to destroy the ark; G-d in turn ordered Noach to enter in the middle of the day to prove that they could not stop him.  The Egyptians thought they would prevent Klal Yisrael from leaving; G-d took them out right in the middle of the day to prove the Egyptians wrong.   Finally, here, Klal Yisrael thought that they would cling to Moshe and not let him die; G-d arranged his death in the middle of the day.

We understand the hava amina of taking axes and breaking the ark; we understand the hava amina of taking up arms to stop Klal Yisrael from leaving Egypt.  But how could Klal Yisrael have even had a hava amina of stopping Moshe's death?  What power do human beings have to stop someone from dying?

R' Chaim Shmuelevitz answers that the power we have is the koach ha'tefilah. 

The gemara (Kesubos 104) tells us that when Rebbi was about to die, the tefilos of his generation kept him on earth until, seeing his suffering, his maid caused an interruption to the prayers so that Rebbi could depart this world in peace.   

We just said over the Yamim Noraim that teshuvah, tefilah, and tzedaka can avert an evil gezeirah. 

Now that we know the power our tefilah has, I have a simple kashe: so why didn't it work?  Why did the tefilos of Klal Yisrael keep Rebbi in this world, clinging to life, but G-d forced Moshe "b'etzem ha'yom ha'zeh" to pass away irrespective of what Klal Yisrael wanted and davened for?   

I think the answer to the question is rooted in the nature of Moshe's sin at mei meriva.  Netziv on our pasuk briefly reminds us of his interpretation of that episode, which he elaborates on more fully in Chukas.  Hashem wanted mei meriva to be a "teachable moment," as they call these things in the world of education.  It would be another step in the transition from life in the desert surrounded by miracles to the life of teva in Eretz Yisrael.  What do you do when you life in the world of teva and you face a drought?  Hashem wanted Moshe to show the people that the answer to their needs would come through tefilah and Torah study.  That's how we who live in the mundane world approach G-d with our needs.  But that's not what Moshe did.  Instead, he hit the rock, and through a miracle -- much like the other miracles that happened in the desert -- the rock produced water.  In response, Hashem told Moshe that since he was stuck in the miracle mode of desert life and could not transition to the teva life of Eretz Yisrael, he would not be the one to lead the people there.

Moshe now in our parsha  must pay the ultimate price for his sin and die before entering the land.  Al asher m'altem bi... b'mei merivas Kadesh..." I think is not merely a reminder of what Moshe did wrong, but is an explanation of why tefilah here did not work.   Because he did not capitalize on the koach ha'tefilah to meet the people's needs at Mei Merivah, midah k'neged midah, the koach ha'tefilah could not work on Moshe's behalf here to spare him from his fate.

At this special time of year may all our tefilos for all our needs be speedily answered.


  1. "through tefilah"

    Yeshayahu 65:24 might not be futuristic had Moshe spoken to the rock, since his would have been the seminal "teachable" 'prayer' where the fix was in (Bam. 20:8) before he even opened his mouth! [as with the one-off case of Avraham/Avimelech, Ber. 20:7]

    "and Torah study"

    "mei meriva" indeed: could Moshe's striking the rock have determined the primacy of the more argumentative Bavli (rather than the Yerushalmi, had he spoken)*? [as Moshe smashed--twice struck--the first luchos, rather than announcing their advent] *and likewise strengthened any tendencies for machalokes not for the sake of heaven


  2. There is a Derasha from Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik ( ) where he does write that unlike Moshe who did all he could on their behalf, they did not do all they could on his behalf. That is why Moshe alone was mispallel –for himself- to be allowed to enter eretz Yisroel. [vaeschanan –I prayed, and not vanischanan – we prayed. Apperently, Rav Soloveichik says that they were remiss in not doing what they could on Moshes` behalf. Again the difficulty is that they swore to save Moshe but in the end did not. This again does nothing for the rebbes` pshat . according to him, both Yisroel and Hashem wanted Moshe saved??!!
    Unfortunately, as the Sifrei and Rashi make manifestly clear, the Jewish people of Moshe’s time acted no differently than the people during Noach’s time or the Egyptians during Yetziat Mitzraim (the Departure from Egypt). What should our ancestors have done on Moshe’s behalf instead of rebelliously confronting Hashem? In other words, how could they have effectively altered G-d’s decree so that Moshe would not have had to die and would have been allowed to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel)? My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), known as the “Rav” by his followers and disciples, answered these questions in the following manner:
    It was not the fault of the Jewish people that Moses made a mistake [by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, Sefer Bamidbar 20:8-13)]. But had the people possessed a sensitivity and love for Moses similar to the love that Moses felt for them, they would have torn the decree into shreds. It was their fault… When he was told that he would not enter the Land of Israel, Moses pleaded for forgiveness. Had the people joined him in prayer, the Holy One would have been forced to respond. But they did not join. Thus we read in Parashat Va-etchanan that with tears in his eyes Moses tells them, “Va-etchanan” (Deut 3:23): I prayed alone. It was not va-nitchanan, we prayed. I was a lonely solitary prayerful person; I prayed, no one else joined in with me. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses, editors, David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, page 212

  3. The Be’er Ba’Sadeh –on rashi- explains that the B’nei Yisroel’s strategy was to daven intensely and cry out in tefillos (prayers) to Hashem that Moshe be kept alive. The Be’er Ba’Sadeh continues and writes that in response to this Hashem had no choice but to suddenly remove the thought from their heads. The Chidushei HaRim writes that Hashem explained/showed Yisroel that this decree –that Moshe die- is a strong one that cannot be thwarted, even by their teffilos.

    1. "Hashem had no choice but to suddenly remove the thought from their heads"

      either that, or just after Moshe ascended Mount N'vo, just as bnei Yisrael were about to intensify their prayer, the Satan told them,
      'Moshe has plenty of time.' ...they did not believe him; he said to them, 'Moshe will be fine.' ...they did not believe him; he showed them an image of Moshe descending the mount with a new lease on life, and they desisted...

  4. This nice diyuk from Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson is most interesting

    One last thought regarding the Rashi/Sifri with which we started. We had asked, that Rashi –in the first two instances of Hashem taking the person or persons away from others, - ends off with the seeming challenge of “Let anyone who has the power to protest do so”! It is as if He was saying “Just go ahead and try! Yet in the last instance, by Yisroel saying that they will not let Moshe go i.e. die, all we have is Hashem saying “I will take him בעצם היום הזה in mid-day”, with no mention of the last phrase/clause daring them to do so/even try. Why is it absent from the third of these otherwise parallel portrayals of Hashems` might?
    Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson explained that the passing of Moshe was completely different that the previous two cases. In the first two cases (by Noach and the Yidden leaving Mitzrayim) the onlookers were certainly unable to prevent what was about to occur [and Hashem certainly had no interest in it happening.] The situation by Moshe was different. They could have davened; they could have prevented his death. Hashem [knowing this] therefore wanted to bring Moshe to Him –in the middle of the day- in sight of everyone, so that they would use this opportunity to prevent the death of Moshe. So rather than Hashem threateningly saying/implying “don`t you dare” which may have had a stifling effect on the people, he said nothing. He point of taking him in broad daylight was so that they will see what was happening and act as they promised; אין אנו מניחין אותו we won't let him [go]!
    Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 19, p. 339ff.)

    1. That is a great diyuk -- thank you for sharing it!