The swan song of Moses continues this week, as the Book of Words rolls on and the aged leader narrates the history of his people, and his own roller coaster of a journey. Standing on a mountaintop overlooking Canaan, he begins chapter 3 with a heart-wrenching plea to enter the Promised Land. Access, however, will be denied, and the depth of Moses’ despair is echoed in the first word of this week’s episode, named for this prayer, ‘Va’etchanan’ – ‘And I pleaded’. But there is more to that word in its original Hebrew than this translation, one of many, conveys. A closer look intensifies this moment, and reveals, perhaps, a glimpse at the inner paths of the human soul as it engages in the mysterious act called ‘prayer’.
The Book of Words, chapter 3, verse 27: ‘And I besought the LORD at that time;’ (JPS translation) The Artscroll Stone Torah translates as ‘And I implored’, the Fox translation is ‘pleaded’, others translate as ‘begged’ ‘entreated’, ‘supplicated’, and ‘beseeched.’ The Aramaic translation elaborates: ‘And I prayed and sought mercy in that hour’.
The Hebrew word Va’etchanan, is singular – only appearing in this rare moment, when Moses is literally on the edge, desperate to fulfill his last wish and complete the journey. The word stems from the root of a Hebrew word that describes, poetically, both verbal and physical meanings of this verb: to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior; to favor, bestow; causatively to implore, and also -to pitch a tent; generally to encamp (for abode or siege)’
The acts of pitching a tent and begging for kindness may seem like two very different actions, but they meet here, portraying a moment of deep devotion and full commitment.
The expression ‘making a pitch’, familiar from sports, business deals, and philanthropic efforts, may be a modern one, but it also applies powerfully to this ancient moment. Moses is making his last pitch, camping in his tent of protest before the Highest Authority.
But the protests and prayers are to no avail. Sometimes, Promised Lands have to remain a desired distance. The hero’s journey, depicted here by the personal story of Moses, ends at the edge of the possible.
Mystical writings discuss Moses’ denied entry as ‘The mystery of the locked garden’, exploring a deeper layer of this story’s spiritual meanings and applications. There’s something about this moment of deep yearning, of fragile impermanence, regardless of the result, that we all know.
Next time you make a pitch, for whatever is your version of a promised land, learn from the old man, and go at it as about to bend reality, pitching a new tent on the summit of possibilities. And, forget about the result, it doesn’t have to end like it did for Moses. And how DOES this story end? Stay tuned for further installments…