Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Va’eschanan means Moshe tried to find chen – favor – in the eyes of G-d. How did he do that? Before asking G-d for what he wanted, he told G-d, as we do in the Shemoneh Esreh, that G-d is “gadol, gibor, v’norah.” Chazal tell us that the word gadol refers to Kerias Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea. As Yitro said, “Atah yada’ati ki gadol Hashem mikol elohim, ki badavar asher zadu aleihem” (Bereishis 18:11). The greatness of G-d is that the severity of His punishment matches, but never exceeds, the crime – middah keneged middah. The Egyptians drowned the Jewish babies in the sea, so their punishment was that they drowned in the sea. If G-d’s attribute is one of reciprocation, then He should forgive Moshe for the sin of hitting the rock, just like Moshe forgave the Jews, so many times, for their sins and appealed to G-d for clemency on their behalf.

Forgiving Moshe for hitting the rock would be in the spirit of G-d forgiving those who forgive others. Furthermore, at the splitting of the sea, G-d showed his greatness by going above and beyond his promise to Avraham, that the Jews would be taken out of Egypt. He could have fulfilled this promise by making the Jews walk through the mud or have them build a bridge. Instead, G-d gave them a first-class passage through the Red Sea, by performing ten miracles for them, even though the angels complained that the Jews were not deserving of it. Clearly then, G-d is capable of ameliorating judgment with mercy and that is what Moshe is referring to when he calls G-d gadol.


Moshe’s request is to go into Ha’aretz hatovah the good land (Devarim 3:25). Is Moshe asking to taste the seven species of foods with which the good land is blessed? In a way he is, but with a different motive in mind. Chazal tell us that tovah means Torah. Even the seven species of food are part of the Torah because they give us the various measurements of food that we need for the fulfillment of the mitzvot. By looking at the olives and figs of Eretz Yisrael, we know what the size of a kezayis (an olive) or a te’einah (a fig) is for the performance of various mitzvot. We know how long kedei achilas peras (the time it takes to eat half a loaf of bread is – the standard time for various prohibitions and mitzvot) is by eating the wheat of Eretz Yisrael. So, for Moshe, the good land is the land where he can fulfill the mitzvot hateluyos ba’aretz, the mitzvot dependent for their performance on the land of Eretz Yisrael. He wants to taste the fruits of the land which inform us how certain mitzvot are performed, and he wants to taste ma’aser sheni, which can only be eaten in the “good” land.

G-d became angry at Moshe “lema’anchem” (Devarim 3:26), which Rashi translates as bishvilchem, because the Jews provoked Moshe at the Mei Merivah. As a result of this provocation, Moshe hit the rock and suffered the consequences. Another way of understanding this is that Moshe is not blaming the people for provoking him. Being provoked is no excuse for anger and is not a mitigating circumstance. We know this from the story of the Etz Hada’as, where Chavah’s excuse that the snake provoked her did not buy her any leniency. If someone provokes you, that is his problem. If you are provoked by that person, it is your problem. Moshe took full responsibility for his mistake of hitting the rock. His complaint against the Jews was not that they provoked him, but that they needed the nes galui, the obvious miracle of speaking to the rock. “Ya’an asher lo he’ematem bi lehakdesheini le’enei Bnei Yisrael – because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel” (Bamidbar 20:12). Wouldn’t have hitting the rock so that water would come out naturally have been enough of a miracle for the Jews to believe in G-d? Why did they need the obvious miracle of speaking to the rock to make them believe in G-d? Isn’t the miracle of nature enough? If it hadn’t been for their need for an obvious miracle in the first place, Moshe would not have needed to speak to the rock and would not have been punished for simply doing the same as he did the first time (Shemot 17:6) when he stuck the rock and water came forth.

Moshe warns the people that if they wish to inherit Eretz Yisrael, they must keep G-d’s decrees and ordinances – chukim and mishpatim (Devarim 4:1). As Rashi emphasizes (Devarim 11:18), Eretz Yisrael is the main place where the Torah is to be kept and the purpose of performing even the most basic mitzvot, even wearing tefillin and affixing mezuzot outside of Eretz Yisrael, is in order that they should not be forgotten when we return to Eretz Yisrael.

Moshe asks the people to safeguard and perform the chukim because they are “your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the nations who shall hear these chukim and say what a wise and discerning people is this great nation” (Devarim 4:6).

The fate of nations is guided by astrology as is the fate of the Jews, except that by keeping chukim, like not wearing sha’atnez or not eating non-kosher food, we can override fate. How does that work? We cannot explain it logically or scientifically, but the fact is that it works and saves us from disaster.

This is illustrated by the story of Shmuel and the gentile scholar Avleit. Both were well versed in astrology, and through the stars, both saw that a certain Jewish person going out to cut reeds in a field would encounter a snake. Avleit said that person was going to die and Shmuel said he would return alive. When he returned alive and they examined his pile of reeds, they found a dead snake. It turned out that the man had performed an act of charity to one of his fellow workers in the field and this act had the power to change his fate. When the nations see the magic of mitzvot and prayer, they are overcome by admiration for the Jews, as Avleit was.

Moshe set aside three cities of refuge. The three verses about the cities of refuge are followed by the words “Vzos haTorah asher sam Moshe” (Devarim 4:44) to teach us that the learning of Torah is a refuge to protect one against one’s own yetzer hara. The word sam, which means to put, teaches us that learning Torah only protects one in this way if one puts one’s learning into practice by keeping the mitzvot.

“Not with our forefathers did G-d seal this covenant but with us, we who are here, all of us alive today” (Devarim 5:3). Because we know that the Torah was given to our forefathers who stood at Sinai, Rashi adds the word “bilvad,” not to our forefathers alone, but also to us. Another way of understanding these words is to read them as they are, without inserting the word bilvad: The Torah is not there for the dead, but for the living, as the mishnah in Avot says, “One moment of life with repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the whole of the world to come.”

“Face to Face did G-d speak with you on the mountain” (Devarim 5:4). These words tell us that the Ten Commandments have two faces, a revealed face and a hidden face. The revealed face is in Ten Commandments we heard at Mount Sinai. But within this face are the hidden faces of the 613 mitzvot.

“I am Hashem, your G-d, who has taken you out of Egypt” (Devarim 5:6) At revelation, G-d appeared to us like a wise scholar sitting and learning the Torah. At the Red Sea, when He defeated the Egyptians, He appeared to us as a valiant man of war.

The two apparitions are one and the same. It is the learning of the zaken ha’yoshev beyeshivah that empowers the gibor ish milchamah. Yoav, Davids general, was successful at war because of the Tehillim of King David. Indeed, as we know (from Yomah 69a), when Alexander came to destroy the Temple and saw Shimon Hatzadik coming towards him with a delegation, he stepped out of his war chariot and bowed down before him. He explained to his baffled cohorts, that he had seen the apparition of Shimon HaTzadik fighting for him in all of his previous battles.

Shamor es yom haShabbos le’kadsho. Sheshes yamim ta’avod ve’asiso kol melachtechah” (Devarim 5:13). This means that you should be working each of the six days of the week so that when Shabbos arrives, your work should be finished, and you will not enter Shabbos with work on your mind.

Moshe tells the people that they should keep the mitzvot “lema’an ya’arichun yomechah,” so that their days should be lengthened (Devarim 5:16). The letters of the word ta’arich can also be read achtir, from the word keser, which means a crown.

The Torah here does not use the phrase “arichus shanim,” which means a long life. It uses the phrase “arichus yamim,” which means a good and enjoyable life. If you keep the Torah and mitzvot, G-d will crown you with meaningful and enjoyable days.

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Raphael Grunfeld received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Rav Dovid Feinstein. A partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, Rabbi Grunfeld is the author of “Ner Eyal: A Guide to Seder Nashim, Nezikin, Kodashim, Taharot and Zerayim” and “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed.” Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].