Commentary on Parashat Vaetchanan, Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
The second Torah portion in Deuteronomy is known by its opening word: vaetchanan — “and I entreated.” The bulk of the portion is Moses recounting and reviewing God’s instructions to the Israelites, but his entreaty is that God relent and let him enter the promised land. This plea is denied.
Beseeching and impassioned prayer are familiar, perhaps near-universal, human behaviors in the face of death. Under extreme stress — and proximity to death tends to be extremely stressful — most of us reach for support, even pleading with a God we usually don’t quite believe in. There are no atheists in a foxhole, as the adage puts it. In extremis, even an ardent rationalist may reach for a higher power. As Rabbi Anne Brener puts it in Mourning and Mitzvah, “Prayer does not have to be predicated on faith. It can also be predicated on need.”
Before death, the dying may plead for reprieve — at the very least more time or less suffering, at best for a reversal of the sentence. Those close to the dying person may try pledging good behavior in exchange for the loved one’s survival. Even after death has come, mourners may negotiate in their grief, offering up whatever they can in exchange for the departed soul’s peace in the afterlife, remission of heartbreak, or the assurance of some further contact with their beloved down the line.
Even if prayer doesn’t work — in the sense that what was asked for wasn’t granted — prayer can still afford a sense of agency. It can be a place of self-expression, even sometimes catharsis. Some suggest that the recitation of Kaddish, the foremost Jewish liturgy of mourning, is supportive precisely because it offers a routine and a gentle resocialization among others who have also known loss.
But for some who are in mourning, prayer of any sort is anathema. If we prayed so hard for our beloved to be saved from death but they were not, what now? We may either feel prayers are futile — that God does not hear them, or cannot respond — or we may be filled with anger that God did hear and could have saved them, but did not.
Moses’ entreaty literally means, “I besought me [divine] grace.” Like the more familiar Hebrew verb to pray, l’hitpalel, its grammar is reflexive, which may indicate that the focus of prayer is primarily inward. Although we might ostensibly be addressing God, in practice the impact of prayer may be largely on us. When we hear our own prayers, we know very deeply what it is we really want, and this strengthens our resolve and sometimes our action. Paradoxically, this sense is amplified by the tradition’s instruction that prayer should be whispered or murmured: It is to be spoken aloud, but in a voice we hear mostly within. The voice is the bridge of communion — a bridge that is woven through this Torah portion, which uses the words voice (kol), listen (shema), and word/speech (devar) more than three dozen times.
What is it we are to hear?
Throughout Vaetchanan, Moses enjoins the Israelites to listen. The last of these declamations begins the most famous Jewish prayer of them all: Hear Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One. These words are ones we are instructed to utter, if we are able, as our final statement before death.
“And you shall love God,” Moses continues, “With all your heart, all your life-force, all your substance.” This is a tall order for one whose deepest wish has just been denied. The Mishnah acknowledges as much in breaking down what each piece of the verse means: “‘With both sides of your heart’ — the part that wants to do wrong as well as the part that wants to do right. ‘With all your life-force’ — even if your life is to be taken from you. ‘With all your might’ — for each and every aspect of your character, profess your thanks exceedingly; for a person must bless God for the bad as well as the good.” (Mishnah Brachot 9:5)
Life is not simple, and prayer is more than just pleading. The word vaetchanan is in fact related to khanicha: to train, dedicate or initiate. To pray is to initiate ourselves, to entrain the mind in grace.
And in that, prayer may be its own answer.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on July 28st, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.
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