“I’m Begging You”- Vaetchanan
“I’m Begging You”- Vaetchanan
Rabbi Bonnie Koppell
The name of this week’s Torah portion is “Vaetchanan.” The word can be translated as- “I begged, I pleaded, I entreated.” It is a poignant and heartbreaking moment. Think about the times in your life when you wanted something so desperately that you begged, pleaded, or entreated someone for them? This is not an everyday behavior or request. For me, and I assume for many of you, there may be only a few occasions in a lifetime that come to mind.
How would it feel, how might it feel, how DID it feel if, after we threw ourselves on someone’s mercy in such a way, that our desire was rejected, that we were turned down? How would we react? Hurt? Angry? Sulking? Vengeful?
Moses is addressing God as the story begins. After his dedicated service in leading the people for 40 years from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, all Moses wants is the chance to at least SEE the land. The Midrash suggests that Moses even offered to be transformed into a sheep or goat so that he could experience the land as part of the flock.
For the final time, God says no. And not in a kind and compassionate manner. There’s no empathy, no understanding of Moses’ pain at not being allowed to see the fulfillment of his life’s work. God responds with hostility (Dt. 3:26)- “Enough! Don’t ever bring this up again.” Moses’ consolation prize is that he can view the land, but he cannot enter it.
We wouldn’t be surprised if Moses threw down his staff and stomped off into the sunset. He doesn’t do that. A man dedicated to his work and with an incomparable sense of duty, he simply continues his words of instruction to the people. In this week’s portion we read not only a review of the 10 commandments, but also the Shema and V’Ahavta. I find it incredibly inspiring and admirable.
Moses reminds the people of how cautious they must be about their own nature and their own actions once they get settled. After 40 years of leadership, he is well aware of human foibles and how easy it is to be swept up by our own arrogance. “Watch yourselves,” he reminds them. Don’t forget what you saw with your own eyes.
We would so much prefer to watch others, wouldn’t we? It is so much easier to criticize THEIR behavior than it is to look within. “Watch yourselves scrupulously,” Moses directs. We can rationalize our own behavior a myriad of ways. We can justify our actions and make excuses. The yetzer ha-ra, our evil inclination, is always right there- ready, willing, and able to lead us down a negative path. Vigilance is mandatory. As we approach the High Holidays, we have an opportunity to learn and grow and improve as we examine past mistakes.
As we watch ourselves, we need to reflect on how our choices impact others- our friends, our family, our community. We are all connected with each other. We can lift each other up, we can inspire each other to be our best, and we can cause immeasurable harm. The midrash shares the story told by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai- “A group of people were traveling in a boat. One of them took a drill and began to drill a hole underneath his seat. His companions said to him: “Why are you doing this?” The man responded, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own seat?” (Midrash Rabbah, Vayikra 4:6).
We are all in the same boat and we can’t drill under our own seat without effecting others. We need to watch ourselves scrupulously. This Shabbas is 6 weeks before the High Holidays. It is time for us to scrupulously examine the choices we’ve made, how we have hurt ourselves, how we have hurt others, how we have strayed from our highest vision of ourselves. May we enter this holy season of the year, these High Holydays, with a renewed dedication to bringing holiness into our lives, into our relationships, and into our community.