At the beginning of Va’etchanan, Moses recounts how he pleaded with God to let him enter the Land of Israel:
And I implored (va’etchanan) God at that time saying, “My God, you have begun to show Your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand, for what power is there in the heaven or on earth that can perform according to your deeds and according to your mighty acts? Let me now cross and see the good land that is on the other side of the Jordan, this good mountain and the Lebanon” (Deuteronomy 3:23).
As Moses relates in the very next verse, God while not accepting his plea, did allow him to see the Promised Land from afar.
The numerical value of “va’etchanan,” 515, is a remez, a hint to the 515 different prayers of supplication Moses prayed (Devarim Rabbah 11:6). Rashi adds that the word “va’etchanan” is one of ten Hebrew words for praying. Amazingly the generic Hebrew word for prayer (tefillah) also has the numerical value of 515. Yet after all his efforts Moses was not granted his greatest aspiration. We could then ask: if Moses, the greatest prophet and leader, was not granted his request after 515 prayers, what can we expect to gain from praying?
The Slonimer Rebbe writes that Moses was not really praying on his own behalf; rather, he was praying on behalf of the Jewish people and the entire world. His fervent desire to enter the Land arose because he knew that if he led the people into the Land, he would be the Mashiach, the Temple would be built and never destroyed, and the final rectification of the world would occur. Despite his noble intentions, God informed Moses that the time had not yet arrived for these redemptive acts. The world was simply not ready. Despite this explanation, the question still remains, how can we expect our prayers to be granted if such an exalted individual’s were not? And if so, what is the point of praying if not to be granted what we pray for?
The answer to this question is that God does listen, accept, and respond to all our prayers. However, we may not always hear or understand His answers, nor like nor accept them immediately. We should not forget that according to Jewish tradition every individual’s thoughts, words, and actions are recorded and have an effect. Nothing is ever lost and no prayer in the bigger picture is in vain.
If so, we must ask, what was the effect of Moses’ prayers? By praying so intensely and deeply to enter the Promised Land, Moses imbued the Jewish people for all eternity with the passionate desire to be connected to the Land. Although he did not personally enter the Holy Land, he bequeathed to all the Jews who lived in exile the will power and desire to never give up the hope of returning to the Promised Land.
History has in fact tested the tenacious faith that Moses bequeathed to his people. Even 2,000 years of exile did not extinguish the Jewish people’s burning desire to return to their homeland. And we, who have merited to either visit, live for a while, or settle in the Land of Israel in this day and age, are the living proof and answer to Moses’ prayers. The potency of his prayers was tremendous; in fact, not one of his 515 pleas was lost or in vain. We must comprehend this notion of prayer and integrate it into our own lives.
This concept of prayer may also explain why the text of the Shema, Judaism’s cardinal statement of faith in the unity of God, appears near the end of Va’etchanan, and not earlier in the Torah. When everything is going our way, it is easy to believe in God and experience His Providence in every aspect of our lives. The true test of faith arrives when we feel that God is distant, that he is not answering our prayers. Perhaps, the Shema is revealed in this portion because only now does Moses himself finally completely understand this message. He had to undergo his own trial of faith to understand that even when God seems to ignore our prayers or responds in a manner not to our liking, we must still cling to the belief in God’s oneness, that God is the source of everything and that everything He does is ultimately for the good.Va’etchanan is always read on the Shabbat after the Ninth of Av, the day dedicated to mourning the Jewish people’s tragic history. Perhaps this is another reason the Shema appears in this portion. After the fasting and the mourning, we need to declare once again our enduring belief in God’s oneness. Just as the Mourner’s Kaddish (recited after the death of a loved one) exalts God’s greatness despite the mourner’s recent personal loss, the recitation of Shema on the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av reaffirms our belief in the justice of God’s decrees and signals our acceptance of His Divine Providence.