23. I requested from G‑d, at that time, saying,

2.4 "G‑d Almighty [Who is merciful in judgment]! You have begun to show Your greatness and Your strong hand to Your servant [with our victory over Sichon and Og]! For who is like G‑d in heaven or on earth who can perform deeds and mighty acts like You?

2.5 Please let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain [of Jerusalem] and the Levanon [i.e., the Holy Temple]."

2.6 But G‑d became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me. G‑d said to me, "Enough of your [requests]! Do not speak to Me any more about this matter.

-- Devarim 3-23-26

Classic Questions

What type of request does va'eschanan signify? (v. 23)

Rashi: Va'eschanan is a derivative of the word חינון, which always signifies [the request for] an unearned (חנם) gift. Even though the righteous could justify their requests based on their good deeds, [in their humility] they only request "unearned" gifts from G‑d....

Another explanation: This is one of ten terms which denote prayer, listed in Sifri.

Midrash: Rabbi Yochanan said, "There are ten terms which can denote prayer, and they are: צעקה, נאקה, רנה, פגיעה, ביצור, קריאה, נפול, ופילול, ותחנונים שועה" ...Of all these expressions, Moshe prayed only with the approach of תחנונים [an appeal to G‑d's grace]. Rabbi Yochanan said, "From here you can learn that no creature has any worth to the Creator, for even Moshe only asked G‑d with an expression that denotes asking for an act of grace."

The Rebbe's Teachings

Moshe's Requests (v. 23)

Rashi cites two opinions concerning the nature of Moshe's requests to enter the Land of Israel:

  1. That while Moshe could have insisted that G‑d allow him to enter the Land of Israel because of his good deeds, he nevertheless did not do so. Rather, he asked G‑d to allow him to enter the Land as one asks for an unearned gift.

  2. That Moshe prayed to G‑d.

What is the difference between these two explanations? And why did Rashi need to bring two explanations?

The Explanation

Scripture states that G‑d is "merciful to all His creations,"1 indicating G‑d's intention to provide for the needs of everything that He created. A Jew has the further merit of being a descendant of the Patriarchs, through whom he has the right to additional sustenance—as the Mishnah states, "Even if you prepare for them a meal like Shlomo's banquet in his heyday, you will not have discharged your obligation to them, for they are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov."2 And by fulfilling G‑d's will, one has yet further rights to sustenance, as the verse states, "If you pursue [the study of] My laws [in order to] guard My commands and observe them, then I will give you rain at [a convenient] time, the Land will yield its produce, etc."3

Thus, in a normal situation when a person approaches G‑d in prayer for his needs, he will be requesting something which he deserves, according to principles which G‑d Himself has established.4

But even though one is deserving, one is nevertheless required to pray to G‑d, since that which a person deserves according to Torah is not a debt owed to him by G‑d. Rather, G‑d chose to be merciful to His creations and He chose to give special treatment to the righteous, etc. So even that which a person deserves is ultimately given to him only because of G‑d's kindness. Therefore, he should ask (and not demand) for it from G‑d, in prayer.5

Rashi's Two Explanations

With the above in mind, we can now turn to Rashi's comments:

At first glance, the use of the unusual term va'eschanan in our verse seems to suggest that Moshe was not making a normal prayer or request. Therefore, Rashi explains that the term va'eschanan does not mean prayer at all, but rather that it "always signifies [the request for] an unearned gift." I.e., Moshe did not pray to enter the Land of Israel, because the concept of prayer would indicate that he felt he deserved to enter (as explained above). Rather, "even though the righteous could justify their requests based on their good deeds, they only request 'unearned' gifts from G‑d."

However, this explanation is somewhat problematic at the literal level, because it does not appear to be consistent with other parts of the Torah. For we do not find that the righteous always request unearned gifts from G‑d, but rather, we do find in a number of instances that they pray to G‑d for their needs, as one prays for something that is deserved.

Therefore, Rashi brings a second interpretation, that va'eschanan "is one of ten terms which denote prayer"; i.e., that Moshe actually prayed to G‑d (because he felt that he deserved to enter the Land).

But Rashi considers this to be only a secondary interpretation, (even though it is more globally consistent) because:

  1. It fails to answer the main question, which is why our verse uses the unusual expression va'eschanan for an ordinary prayer.

  2. At the literal level, it is difficult to accept that Biblical Hebrew, the holy tongue used by G‑d Himself, would have ten different words that mean the same thing.

The View of R' Yochanan in the Midrash

In the Midrash, R' Yochanan appears to offer a third, intermediate opinion. On the one hand, R' Yochanan holds, in accordance with Rashi's second interpretation, that va'eschanan is indeed an expression of prayer, indicating that Moshe felt that he deserved to enter the Land. Nevertheless, R' Yochanan maintains that outwardly Moshe used "an expression that denotes asking for an act of grace," rather than demanding that his request be granted based on his merits. This is because Moshe knew that "no creature has any worth to the Creator"; i.e., however great a person may be, his deeds are ultimately not needed by G‑d.

According to the Midrash, Moshe felt he had many merits, but ultimately he was aware that his merits were not of any real value to G‑d. In contrast, Rashi's first (and primary) opinion maintains that Moshe did not feel that he deserved to enter the Land, as in his great humility Moshe felt that his merits were of no true worth. Thus, his request to G‑d was not a prayer at all, but rather, "the request of an unearned gift."

G‑d's Response (v. 26)

Based on the above, it appears that Rashi's two explanations of G‑d's response (in v. 26), correspond directly to his two interpretations of Moshe's request (in v. 23):

According to the first approach, that Moshe was requesting an "unearned gift," there was no limit to how persistent Moshe could be, since in any case it was not dependent on him being deserving. G‑d therefore responded, "[Request no more] so that people should not say, 'How hard is the Master, and how obstinate and pressing is the disciple!'"

However, according to the second approach, that Moshe was asking to be rewarded with entry into the Land due to his merits, G‑d replied that his merits would be rewarded, but in another way—"More than this is reserved for you. Much is the goodness that is kept for you [in the World to Come]."

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 24, p. 28ff; Sichas Shabbos Parshas Va'eschanan 5748)