Torah Portion: Vaetchanan
Dvar Torah on Deuteronomy 3:23-26
There we were in the land of Moav, on the 1st day of the 11th month in the 40th year of wandering in the desert.
Moses is standing before the whole people, recounting the voyage thus far.
At first, he reminds us of our victories over the Amorites and how we began to take hold of the land that would become some of ancient Israel:
So the LORD our God also delivered into our power King Og of Bashan, with all his men, and we dealt them such a blow that no survivor was left.
At that time we captured all his towns; there was not a town that we did not take from them: sixty towns, the whole district of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan--
all those towns were fortified with high walls, gates, and bars—apart from a great number of unwalled towns.
We doomed them as we had done in the case of King Sihon of Heshbon; we doomed every town—men, women, and children--
and retained as booty all the cattle and the spoil of the towns.
Thus we seized, at that time, from the two Amorite kings, the country beyond the Jordan, from the wadi Arnon to Mount Hermon--
He sounds like a typical war hero. His words echo descriptions of many other military victories and sound meant to instill hope as the Israelites prepare to conquer the land of Israel. As a meandering, vulnerable, recently-enslaved people his words probably made the people feel strong, powerful--all of the things they lacked when they were enslaved.
At the beginning of this week’s parasha, however, Moses’ tone shifts dramatically.
That is the name of this week’s Torah portion, meaning “And then I pleaded.”
It is not often we hear of military leaders pleading at all, especially if the pleas are ineffective. But here, we witness Moses not just pleading--we witness him RETELLING the story of pleaing before God, and ALSO how his plea is flat-out rejected by God.
Va’etchanan el Hashem
“And then I pleaded to God and said
‘O Lord GOD,
You who let Your servant see Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal!
Let me, please, cross over and see the good land
on the other side of the Jordan.’”
It takes an extraordinary amount of vulnerability and a very special leader to be able to share their deepest desires before an entire people. For a lot of us, it’s hard to share our desires even in private, whether it’s a job you really want that you might not get, whether it’s a career or hobby you want to pursue but don’t know if you’ll be any good at, or whether it’s telling someone “I love you” who might not say it back
Moses, special leader that he is, not only has the vulnerability to express his deep desire to see the land on the other side of the Jordan to God, but he is even willing to recount that experience, as well as God’s rejection before his entire people.
It is hard to imagine having a leader in America today willing to show that kind of vulnerability before an entire audience. In today’s culture, Moses’ behavior would be very countercultural.
The Jewish community no longer has a leader like Moses, and will never have another leader like Moses. BUT we are all inheritors of his teachings--that is why we traditionally refer to him as Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Teacher. And without a Moses to lead our community, we all must step into his legacy of leadership to keep us moving forward toward the Promised Land.
The first part of Moses’ leadership legacy is instilling a sense of hope and strength and power. To that end, I want to recognize the incredible leadership of the 35+ Chevrei members of all ages who participated in the protest in Howard County. Without your presence and your voices, fewer people would even know about the massive atrocities that are being committed against detained individuals in this country. By showing up and expressing your desires, you make change possible. There is much more work to do, but your example, gives me and I’m sure many others the hope and the energy to take the next step in stopping our government from violating the human rights of migrants and immigrants.
The second part of Moses’s leadership legacy is recognizing our vulnerabilities and our desires. The root of the Hebrew word for Moses’ prayer to God וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן is chet-nun-nun, which is the same as the root for the word “chen”, which is the Hebrew word for grace. According to Rashi, this implies that Moses made his request to God without making any argument or justification for why he should to enter the land. He does not reflect upon his qualifications but rather places his desire, simply and straightforwardly, depending on God’s will to grant him permission to enter the land or not.
As we move into Elul and focus on repairing our interpersonal relationships, in order to make deep shifts, we will have to look openly at where we stand with one another, and what we want to ask for from one another. We might find ourselves asking for forgiveness in a situation where we don’t think we deserve it. We need to take the risk of being open with our desires and risk not getting what we want. It’s very vulnerable and uncomfortable, but this too is a kind of leadership.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will make many supplicatory prayers. We will sing the prayer Avinu Malkenu, we will say:
Avinu Malkenu Chanenu,
Be gracious to us
Chanenu the same root, chet-nun-nun, as V’etchanan. Our prayer will follow Moses’ model, giving us a chance to get in touch with our deepest desires, whether we think we deserve them or not, whether we have any realistic hope of getting the thing that we want or not.
Part 1 of Moses’ leadership legacy--the instilling of hope, of strength, of power--that kind of leadership is all over the place in American culture. Part 2--the risking vulnerability--that is what is so countercultural. I’m proud to be joining a community here that is not afraid to be countercultural, to hold different values than the mainstream, and that not only CAN embrace a legacy of leadership that is just a little different than the mainstream, but that actually RELIES on its whole community to take on leadership to be the daringly whole-hearted enterprize that Chevrei Tzedek is.
Let us then step into the leadership legacy of Moshe Rabbenu, yes by instilling hope and strength in one another and also by sharing our visions and desires with one another, in all of their vulnerability.
Bit by bit, perhaps we can amplify a different vision of leadership, one that is as old as Moses would be if he were here, and is renewed with each leader who steps up.
Rory Katz is the rabbi of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore. She was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in May 2019.