Vaetchanan: From Blame to Acceptance
The Subtle Generosity of God's "No"
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“God was cross with me on your account and did not listen to me…” (Deuteronomy 3:26)
וַיִּתְעַבֵּ֨ר יְהֹוָ֥ה בִּי֙ לְמַ֣עַנְכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑י
You caused this for me; similarly it states, (Psalms 106:32) “And they provoked God at the waters of Meriba, and God did evil to Moses on their account.” (Rashi)
God was angry at me for trying to ensure your permanent stay in that land while He had already decreed that at a certain point in history your descendants would be exiled among the gentiles. (Seforno)
Teach us to count our days rightly,
that we may obtain a wise heart. (Psalms 90:12)
The Hebrew word “l’maancha”— “for your sake” or “on your account” is decidedly ambiguous. If I do something l’maancha it could be because I have your best interests at heart or because I am simply reacting to you. This ambiguity means that the word can connote elements of considerateness and blame, pro-activity and reactivity, forethought and afterthought. Like the word “because” (ki), the actual meaning of the causality implied is difficult to parse.
When Moses tells the people in this week’s parasha, Vaetchanan, that God denied him entry into the land—for the people’s sake, l’maanchem—he gives us at least two possible meanings. The first, suggested by Rashi, is that the people are really to blame. Moses loses his temper because the people cause him grief, and the result is that he is punished by God. Here, Moses seems to lay the responsibility for his failure on the people, thereby committing the very faux pas that got him canceled in the first place. The task of a leader is to go high even when the people go low.
In Seforno’s hands, though, Moses’s limits are fore-ordained. His inability to enter the land is less a punishment than a kind of blessing in disguise: the people need go their own way without the imposing hand of Moses. They need to forge their independence. Moses must die so that they can become themselves. To say it even more strongly, had Moses entered the land, the people would never have been exiled. But such a successful outcome would have been terrible for the people never would have learned how to succeed on their own. Moses’s desire to stop the Exile, to protect the people from vulnerability and error, is a form of over-reach. His entry into the land means the death of free will and agency. It is ability to Fall that makes us human. It is the experience of exile that kindles our longing and our faith.
One of the paradoxes of a religious worldview, in contrast to a hedonistic one, is that some suffering can be a gift even if we don’t experience it that way in the moment. Think of Moses as a “long-termist” and “effective altruist” who seeks to diminish the people’s suffering over the coming millennia through a preventative treatment. But God effectively retorts that Moses cannot foresee the positives that will come along with this painful durée. Nobody can or should choose suffering, but given that suffering is endemic it seems foolhardy and counterproductive to devote one’s life to avoiding it.
The Hebrew word vayitaber which can mean angry or cross contains the same three letters that make up the word for Jew or Hebrew: ivri, a name taken from the fact that Abraham was the first to “go over.” Here is how I read Moses’s line poetically:
God made Godself a Jew in me and did not listen to me for your sake. That is, God exiled Godself from me, making Godself unavailable to me. In so doing, God turned me into a Jew. And God did it so that you, too, would be Jews. To be Jewish is to feel the painful absence of God. To be Jewish is to pray and wonder “Where is God?” God turned me into a searcher instead of a person with complete answers.
If we go with this interpretation, then Moses’s cry in Vaetchanan becomes paradigmatic of Jewish experience, particularly of the spiritual experience of Exile, which is one that continues where Jews have political sovereignty. It is for our own sake that we are denied many things that we desire. It is for our own sake that our deprivation leads us to become prayerful and reflexive—vaetchanan can mean “I petitioned,” but it might also read as “I found grace in myself.”
Two commentators pick up on the same word and one hears Moses blaming the people for his anguish, and the other hears Moses finding solace in God’s “No.” These two ways of hearing the same text suggest two different ways we can relate to the frustrations and disappointments in our life. One way looks to lash out, the other to find uplift. One way looks to accuse and negotiate. One finds a deeper strength in acceptance and surrender.
The power of God’s “No” is commensurate to Moses’s desire to enter the land. A “no” to a weak desire would not be particularly meaningful. A “yes” to a strong desire would make for a story of little drama and little self-expression. God and Moses would be in alignment and would be indistinguishable as characters. Vaetchanan says that paradoxically Moses is closest to God when he feels most estranged from God. The final book of the Torah, the second Torah or “Repeated Torah” (Mishna Torah) is the book in which Moses becomes himself, and it is also the book in which Moses is told “No.” By saying “No” to Moses, God also becomes Godself more fully. Were God to say “yes” to Moses God would be an “enabler.” Exile is the price God and the people pay to break their codependency.
The ultimate “no” is death. Thus, the ultimate addiction and the ultimate desire for control is the desire to avoid death at all costs, to live forever. Moses’s desire to enter the land is bound up in his desire to extend his life beyond its limit. Thus, the word vayitaber, which alludes to crossing over, hits us intensely: God is angry at Moses for seeking to cross over—not just the Jordan river, but the river that separates mortals from God. Moses, meanwhile, is angry that he cannot cross over.
Hans Jonas teaches the ethical importance of mortality when he writes,
“The knowledge that we are here but briefly and that a non-negotiable limit is set to our expected time may even be the necessary incentive to number our days and make them count.”
Our desire for more time is in tension with the ability to make our time count. The compassion of God’s “no” is that it breaks the spell of our need for “More” and pushes us to find satisfaction in what we already have. A day well-lived may be worth more than many days spent longing for more days. A single moment of presence may be worth more than a day spent in a messy mind see-sawing between expectation and regret.
Vaetchanan: Moses’s prayer is answered only when it is transformed from the prayer he thinks he has to the prayer he really has. “God, help me accept my mortality. Lord, help me accept my limitations. Make my heart wise. Let my soul be full of milk and honey. My own promised land.”
The movement from Tisha B’Av through Elul to Rosh Hashana is a movement of reconstituting the divine no, which once felt like the end of the world (no more Temple!), into the grace of mortal life renewed. We now move towards a time of din, judgment, with an appreciation that our numbered days hold depths that cannot be quantified. In so doing we change the meaning of l’maanchem from blame to acceptance. We grow out of victimhood and become b’nei chorin: free.
Shabbat Shalom. May we all live to 120. And may we merit to count our days rightly.
Zohar Atkins @ Etz Hasadeh
P.S.—Wishing a Happy Birthday to dedicated reader, Alex Duffant.