The collective honor of Am Yisrael

Moses prayed 515 times to no avail. But in rejecting Moshe’s prayers, Hashem was enhancing the honor of the collective of Am Yisrael.

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Rabbi Yaakov Shapira
Rabbi Yaakov Shapira
Flash 90

This week’s parasha opens with Moshe’s passionate prayer to Hashem: “I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying… Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon."

In just a few short weeks, Am Yisrael will cross the Jordan and enter the land of Israel and Moshe is desperate to join them. Despite the punishment handed down to him at Mei Mereiva, and even though a new leader has been appointed in his stead, Moshe holds on to a glimmer of hope and passionately pleads for the verdict to be overturned. In fact, according to the Midrash, Moshe petitioned Hashem no less than 515 times to allow him to enter the land of Israel (like the numerological value of the Hebrew word ve’etchanan).

Passion and optimism notwithstanding, Moshe’s prayers do not yield the outcome he had hoped for. To the contrary, he elicited an angry response from Hashem: “Never speak to Me of this matter again”.

This conversation between Hashem and Moshe is puzzling and painful. Why is Moshe’s request rejected? Moshe is Hashem’s faithful messenger who has dedicated his life to lovingly leading the nation. Why is Hashem so adamant that Moshe cannot enter the land?


The nation, as a collective, is not just the sum of its parts. It comprises its own unique entity, and the honor due to this entity is binding.
The Ran writes that the issue at stake was the honor of Am Yisrael. Moshe’s accusatory statement at Mei Mereiva - “Listen you rebels!” - was not just a personal affront to a group of people. It was an indictment of the entire nation.

The nation, as a collective, is not just the sum of its parts. It comprises its own unique entity, and the honor due to this entity is binding. In a similar sense, the Shita Mekubetztet explains that even if a king forgoes the honor due to him, his honor is not foregone, because his honor is not personal. On a halakhic level, the king’s honor is actually the honor of the collective - of the nation in its entirety - which is absolute and cannot be foregone.

This concept of the unique entity of Am Yisrael finds expression in other areas of Jewish thought and practice. In Tehillim it is written “If I do not raise Yerushalayim above my most joyful occasion”. The Nefesh Hachaim comments that Yerushalayim is really a reference to the collective of Am Yisrael. When a couple marries, one of their goals is to rebuild the destroyed wreckage of Yerushalyim. Under the chuppah, the chatan and kallah are not really celebrating their personal and private moment of happiness. They are actually building another layer of the nation and adding another tier to the greater entity of Am Yisrael.

Similarly, the Ra’avad (Ba’alei Hanefesh) notes that we recite the berachah of “yotzer ha’adam” under the chuppah, rather than when a baby is born, because it is at this point that a person becomes complete and sees beyond himself. The most authentic expression of personhood is when an individual connects to something greater than himself and realizes the role that he can play in harnessing and enhancing the honor and the strength of the collective.

In moments of pain and in moments of happiness, the collective of the nation represents the resolute strength and binding honor that defines us as a people. When Hashem rejected Moshe’s pleas, He was neither rejecting Moshe nor denying his loyal service. A close reading of the verse demonstrates this explicitly: “But the Lord was wrathful with me for your account”. By rejecting Moshe’s prayers, Hashem was maintaining and enhancing the unique honor of the collective of Am Yisrael.

Rabbi Yaakov Shapira is the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Jerusalem




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