The Torah portion Vaes’chanan derives its name from its first word, Vaes’chanan, which according to the Midrash1 is a derivative of both chinun or “supplication,” and chinam or “free” — something done freely and not from any sense of obligation.
According to the Midrash , the opening verses of the Torah portion thus consist of Moshe’s plea that he be permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael , a petition that he based not upon his own merit, but which he sought as a matnas chinam , a gratuitous gift from G-d.
The Midrash goes on to state that, since even Moshe found it necessary to supplicate G-d for an unearned gift, and did not ask that his request be granted in view of his many achievements, we can conclude that no created being has the ability to make demands of his Creator.
Why should we pray as if we have no merits upon which to base our requests?
There are two factors involved in asking that G-d fulfill a request or provide something that is needed: The manner in which the request is made — supplication or demand; and the reason that G-d should fulfill the request — that the person is deserving, or as a free gift.
Since G-d is the Creator of all beings, it is reasonable to assume that He also has a moral obligation to provide them with their needs, especially so since He is “merciful unto all His creatures.”2 The Jew especially, filled as he is with good deeds and accomplishments, is deserving that G-d provide him with all manner of good.
Accordingly, yet another question may be posed: Why is it even necessary to pray for the fulfillment of one’s needs, when man is also one of G-d’s creations, and thus inherently entitled to have his needs met? And this question seems pertinent if one possesses merits and accomplishments that stand him in good stead.
The reason is as follows: Even when G-d provides for a person’s needs because that person is deserving or because He is merciful, He is in no way obligated to do so. The verse expresses this explicitly when it states:3 “Unto You, G-d, is kindness, for You repay each individual according to his actions.”
This informs us that, even if an individual’s good deeds make him worthy of G-d’s blessings, Divine beneficence must still be considered a kindness, for nothing can compel G-d to act in a certain manner; His answering of a need or granting of a request is ultimately an act of kindness.
This also explains why it is necessary to petition G-d; one can demand nothing from Him, but must instead plead that He grant any request as an undeserved gift.
This is also in accord with the saying of our Sages4 that one should not make the fulfillment of his prayer dependent upon his merits, for even when G-d fulfills a request as a result of a person’s meritorious deeds, “no created being can rightfully make demands of his Creator,”5 since man’s actions are wholly insignificant in relation to G-d. Thus, one must always petition G-d for a matnas chinam , a gratuitous gift.
In a more profound sense, Moshe wanted to enter Eretz Yisrael so as to draw down upon the Jewish people a level of G-dliness far loftier than that which is generally drawn down through man’s service — a boundless, free gift from Above far beyond man’s supplications.6 Moshe was unsuccessful in his quest, for G-d’s intent is that holiness be drawn down as a result of man’s service.
Although the denial of Moshe’s petition resulted in the possibility of further exiles, G-d still desires man’s service, for it is this service that draws down an unsurpassed degree of G-dliness — a level even greater than that of a matnas chinam.7
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXIV, pp. 28-35
Men of Wisdom & Seekers of Wisdom
In speaking of the “Cities of Refuge” — six cities to which those guilty of manslaughter could flee to find safety from a victim’s avengers — the Torah in the section of Vaes’chanan says:8 “he shall flee to one of these cities and he shall live.”
The Gemara9 derives from this that “a student who is exiled has his teacher exiled with him, for the verse states, ‘he shall live.’ That is, you shall do something for him that provides him with life.”
The Rambam in Yad HaChazakah10 states this law as follows: “A student who is exiled to the Cities of Refuge has his teacher exiled with him, for the verse states ‘he shall live’ — you shall do something for him so that he may live.” The Rambam concludes: “For men of wisdom, or for those who [at least] seek wisdom, life without the study of Torah is considered as death.”
The concept implicit in the statement that “a student who is exiled has his teacher exiled with him,” also applies to the spiritual service of every individual.
Every Jew enjoys a relationship with G-d that is similar to that of a pupil and his master, as the verse states: “All your children [all Jews] are G-d’s disciples.”11 When a Jew sins against G-d, he is considered “an unworthy disciple” until he repents. The reason he sinned in the first place is because he lacked wisdom, as our Sages state:12 “A person will not sin unless he is overcome with a spirit of folly” — the antithesis of wisdom.
The Alter Rebbe13 explains that the verse: “Wisdom gives life to those who possess it”14 means that a Jew’s life derives from G-dliness clothed in the human faculty of wisdom. Therefore, when a person is “a man of wisdom,” he is constantly aware of his relationship with G-d, and it is nigh impossible for him to sin.
The ability to sin comes from not being a “man of wisdom;” such an individual does not feel a connection with his Master. This is a result of the spirit of folly, which occludes a person’s wisdom.15
When an individual sins against G-d, he must reckon with the “avenger,” the evil inclination that seeks to bring a Jew to a state of spiritual death, as our Sages say:16 “He is Satan, he is the evil inclination, he is the angel of death.”
Concerning this sad state of affairs, we learn that “a student who is exiled has his teacher exiled with him.” In spiritual terms, this means that although a sinner is currently “lacking in wisdom,” this in no way means — G-d forbid — that his connection with G-d has been severed. For every Jew at least seeks wisdom, in line with the saying:17 “A Jew neither desires nor is he able to be sundered from G-dliness.”
If a Jew sins, it means that his connection to G-d is dormant and concealed. However, even in such a situation, the Divine link remains powerful enough to save him from the “avenger” and the spiritual death it brings.
When a Jew demonstrates a desire to be a “worthy disciple” and clearly seeks wisdom, then “wisdom will give him life,” i.e., it will infuse his entire being with a feeling of sanctity. Thus, the sway of the evil inclination will cease in and of itself.
If this is so with regard to an individual Jew, it is certainly true regarding the Jewish people as a whole: When Jews find themselves in exile, as we are today, it is possible to — Heaven forbid — lose hope, not knowing how to extricate ourselves.
The Torah therefore rules that “a student who is exiled has his teacher exiled with him.” And since “that which G-d does, He commands us to do as well,”18 it follows that our Divine Teacher finds Himself in exile, as it were, with us. As our Sages state:19 “Wherever the Jewish people were exiled, they were accompanied by the Divine Presence.”
Thus, a loss of hope is totally out of place, for even in exile, “G-d is your protective shade [for He is found] at your right hand.”20
G-d therefore sees to it that we all become “worthy students.” This brings about our liberation from exile and leads us to the complete Redemption through our righteous Moshiach.
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXIX, pp. 33-39
1. Midrash Rabbah on this verse.
2. Tehillim 145:9.
3. Ibid., 62:13.
4. Berachos 10b.
5. Midrash Rabbah loc. cit.
6. See Likkutei Torah, Devarim, p. 3a, 3c.
7. See Or HaTorah, Vaes’chanan p. 65ff.
8. Devarim 4:42.
9. Makkos 10a.
10. Hilchos Rotzeiach, beginning of ch. 7.
11. Yeshayahu 54:13 and commentary of Metzudos. See also beginning of Maamar titled VeChal Banayich 5689.
12. Sotah 3a.
13. Tanya, ch. 18.
14. Koheles 7:12.
15. See Tanya, ch. 24 (p. 30a ff.) and ch. 19 (p. 25a).
16. Bava Basra 16a.
17. HaYom Yom Tammuz 25. See also Maamar titled Basi LeGani 5710, chs. 3-4.
18. Shmos Rabbah 30:9.
19. Megillah 29a; Sifri 35:34.
20. Tehillim 121:5.