In this week’s Parshah, Moshe—now in his last month of life, and stationed just outside the entrance to Eretz Yisrael—wistfully recalls one of the most disappointing moments of his forty-year leadership career:
I entreated the Lord at that time, saying, “O Lord God, You have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for who is [like] God in heaven or on earth who can do as Your deeds and Your might? Pray let me cross over and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon.” But the Lord was angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me, and the Lord said to me, “It is enough for you; speak to Me no more regarding this matter. Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan. But command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him, for he will cross over before this people, and he will make them inherit the land which you will see. And we abided in the valley opposite Beth Peor (Deut. 3:23-29).
Back in the book of Bamidbar, Moshe mishandled a water-crisis at Merivah (Num. 20:7-13) and, in consequence, Hashem decreed that he would not be permitted to join the nation into Eretz Yisrael. Here, in the book of Devarim, Moshe reveals to Bnei Yisrael how he reacted to this decree. In fact, this is the first that we learn of his response; as we observed several years ago, the petitionary prayer that Moshe recounts at the start of this Parshah appears nowhere in the “original script”—that is, nowhere in the first four books of the Torah. It is a “deleted scene,” a piece of our people’s past that we would never have known about had Moshe not decided, just days before his death, that it ought to be shared publicly.
When we last analyzed this scene, our interest lay in determining why Moshe chose to divulge to Bnei Yisrael such an apparently private portion of his personal history. This year, let’s ask ourselves a different question: when, exactly, did this scene take place? Though Moshe’s prayer never made it into the official account of Bnei Yisrael’s sojourns in the desert, can we nevertheless determine where it would have belonged, had it been included?
Actually, our text is bookended by a couple of temporal markers that render this mystery quite simple to solve. Moshe opens the Parshah by telling us that his prayer took place “at that time.” This description is not helpful on its own, but if we turn back a few pages to the end last week’s Parshah (Deut. 2:17-37), we immediately realize that the story from which this week’s narrative picks up is the war with Sichon and Og (Num. 21:21-35). Indeed, Rashi observes (see commentary to Deut. 3:23), Bnei Yisrael’s military success over these nations was precisely what convinced Moshe that it may be a propitious time to advance an appeal on his own behalf.
Now move to the end of our passage. There again, Moshe provides us with a dateable data point: “and we abided in the valley opposite Beth Peor” (Deut. 3:29). This is very helpful information because there is only one incident in the Torah that is set “in the valley opposite Beth Peor”—the idolatrous worship of Baal Peor (Num. 25:1-9).
So we have our coordinates. On the one end is the war with Sichon and Og; on the other, the sin of Baal Peor; and it was at some point in the middle that our episode—Moshe’s prayer—occurred. Where, then, does that leave us? Well if we return to the book of Bamidbar, and search for the section situated between these two events, we end up in… Parshat Balak (Num. 22:2-25:9).
Parshat Balak: The Parshah in which a Moabite king by the name of Balak hires a Midianite prophet by the name of Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael. This Parshah is actually unique in that it focuses almost exclusively on the affairs of gentile nations; we read for many verses of how Balak and Bilaam plot against Bnei Yisrael, but not once throughout the entire spectacle do we hear what Bnei Yisrael themselves are thinking, feeling or doing as all this unfolds. Never are we told explicitly what is happening over in their neck of the desert while the machinations of their Moabite and Midianite neighbors take shape.
Yet now, in this week’s Parshah, we finally receive the clues we need to put at least part of the puzzle together. As it turns out, Bilaam’s attempts to curse Bnei Yisrael took place at the same point in time as Moshe’s prayer to enter into Eretz Yisrael. It may be no accident, then, that the phrase Moshe uses to describe the timing of his prayer—“at that time,” or “in that period” (בעת ההוא)—is the exact same phrase the Torah uses when dating the Bilaam episode: “Balak the son of Zippor was the king of Moab in that period, בעת ההוא” (Num. 22:4).
But there is more to this synchronization than the mere coincidence of a fairly conventional chronological construction. In fact, when we really start to think about it, these two tales, Bilaam’s curses and Moshe’s prayer, are quite substantively connected. At the very same time, we have here two prophets—whom Chazal actually identifies as spiritual counterparts! (Sifrei Devarim 357)—each entreating Hashem to fill a special favor on their behalf. Both are taken “ראש הפשגה,” i.e., “to the top of a hill”—Bilaam in order to behold the people whom he wishes to curse (Num. 23:14), Moshe in order to behold the land that he will not be permitted to enter (Deut. 3:27). Both, however, fail in their mission, and are even commanded to remain silent as a result—Balak orders Bilaam silent because Bilaam has not succeeded in cursing Bnei Yisrael (Num. 23:25), and Hashem orders Moshe silent because Moshe will not succeed in entering Eretz Yisrael (Deut. 3:26). And both emerge from their defeat by turning to the topic of “אחרית הימים,” “the end of days,” about which they prophesy at length (Num. 24:14ff; Deut. 4:30ff).
These parallels are further underscored by striking linguistic resonances between the two Parshas. Most notably:
- In both, eye imagery, “ע.י.נ,” functions prominently. In Parshat Balak: “and the Lord uncovered the eyes of Balaam” (Num. 22:31); “perhaps it will be favorable in God’s eyes and you will be able to curse the people for me” (Num. 23:27); “The word of Balaam son of Beor, the word of the man with an open eye” (Num. 24:3); etc. In our Parshah: “Ascend to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes… see it with your eyes” (Deut. 3:27);
- In both, sight imagery, “ר.א.ה,” also functions prominently. In Parshat Balak: “and Balak saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites” (Num. 22:2); “And in the morning Balak took Balaam and led him up to Bamoth Baal, and from there he saw part of the people” (Num. 22:41); “God does not look at evil in Jacob, and He has seen no perversity in Israel” (Num. 23:21); “Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel” (Num. 24:1); etc. In our Parshah: “O Lord God, You have begun to make seen to Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand” (Deut. 3:24); “Pray let me cross over and see the good land” (Deut. 3:25); “Go up to the top of the hill and lift up your eyes westward and northward and southward and eastward and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross this Jordan” (Deut. 3:27); etc.
- In both, the root “ע.ב.ר”—crossing, overcoming, trespassing—also functions prominently. In Parshat Balak: “Even if Balak gives me a house full of silver and gold, I cannot do anything small or great that would transgress, ע.ב.ר, the word of the Lord, my God” (Num. 22:18); “If Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress, ע.ב.ר, the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own” (Num. 23:13); see also Num. 22:26. In our Parshah: “Pray let me cross over, ע.ב.ר, and see the good land that is on the other side, ע.ב.ר, of the Jordan” (Deut. 3:25); “You shall not cross, ע.ב.ר, this Jordan” (Deut. 3:27); “But command Joshua and strengthen him and encourage him, for he will cross, ע.ב.ר, before this people” (Deut. 3:28); see also Deut. 3:26.
Taken together, then, the story of Bilaam’s curses and the story of Moshe’s prayers—though they appear in different volumes of the Torah and are separated by large swaths of text—cannot properly be read as two distinct scenes. Instead, they must be read side-by-side, for that is how they occurred in real-time. Put otherwise, these are in fact not two scenes, but the same scene from two different angles. They are, in fact, a “split scene.”
Of course, the image of two prophets—one gentile, the other Jewish; one endeavouring to impede Bnei Yisrael’s conquest of Eretz Yisrael, the other pleading to join them in that conquest; one stationed atop a desert hilltop, the other, at the foot of another such hilltop in close proximity—is fascinating in purely literary terms. It is indeed one of the great dramatic ironies of the Torah, that these two spiritual giants, both capable of conversing directly with Hashem, both capable of seeing past distant horizons geographically and also temporally, apparently never saw each other—never grew aware that mere miles away from where they stood storming the heavens towards one end, there stood their prophetic equal, advancing an agenda entirely antithetical to theirs—but with words and gestures so remarkably similar to their own.
Yet the true significance of this split-scene, for us, lies not in its aesthetic appeal, but rather in the profound haskhafic (philosophical-theological) implications to which it gives rise. At one level, these implications might be concisely expressed as the hard-learned conclusion at which Bilaam arrives by the end of his ordeal: “I am incapable of overcoming the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own” (Num. 24:13). Through the contrast of Bilaam’s experience and that of Moshe’s, our Torah reinforces this assertion, and exposes for us how far-reaching it truly is: not only the gentile prophet promoting nefarious purposes, but even the Jewish prophet—the greatest such prophet there ever was—requesting nothing less noble than the privilege of continuing to serve the needs of Hashem’s people, cannot shake Hashem’s will once that will has been resolved. Read thus, the combined effect of Parshas Balak and Vaetchanan is to deliver a sobering lesson about the absolute nature of divine justice and omnipotence.
There is, however, another way—not necessarily exclusive to the first—that we can read these two texts. Most of us walk away from Parshat Vaetchanan understanding that Moshe’s tefillah, though valiantly offered, was ultimately rejected. It is likely that this is how Moshe himself interpreted his experience. But if we widen our lens, and widen our definition of what constitutes a “successful” tefillah, perhaps our perspective on this scene will widen as well. Granted, the technical content of Moshe’s prayer was denied: he did not, in the end, enter into Eretz Yisrael. Yet imagine what might have happened had Moshe not offered his prayer. That is: Imagine what might have happened had it been Bilaam alone who had Hashem’s ear in that fateful moment, with no Moshe on the other side to balance his spiritual force. Imagine if Moshe had not countered Bilaam’s destructive appeal with a constructive appeal of his own. Under such circumstances, might Bilaam have had his way? Might he have succeeded at turning divine disfavor against Bnei Yisrael? Might his curses have proven effective?
Might we say, then, what while Moshe’s tefillah was not enough to secure his own entry into Eretz Yisrael, it may have been precisely Moshe’s tefillah which—perhaps unbeknownst even to Moshe himself—made the difference in enabling Bnei Yisrael to enter unharmed?
Of course, we do not possess the answers to these theoretical theological questions. Personally, however, I am inclined towards the position of a mentor who taught me once that there is no such thing as an unanswered tefillah. Hashem hears every tefillah, listens to every tefillah, and, yes, answers every tefillah—only, His responses do not always take forms that we might have expected. Sometimes, what we accomplish with our tefillot is different than what we expected, and sometimes, the positive outcomes produced by our tefillot are far greater than we could have ever expected.
And sometimes—as may well be true in the case of Moshe—this happens without our even realizing it.