By Rav David Silverberg
Parashat Vaetchanan begins with Moshe recalling his impassioned prayer after Benei Yisrael’s conquest of the region east of the Jordan River, beseeching God for permission to cross the river into Eretz Yisrael. Moshe prayed that just as he was granted the privilege to experience Benei Yisrael’s miraculous triumph over the Emorite kingdoms east of the river, he should likewise be allowed to see the completion of the process across the Jordan. His prayers were rejected, however, as God refused to annul the decree condemning Moshe to die before entering the Land of Israel.
Rashi, commenting on the word “va-etchanan” which Moshe uses here in reference to his prayer, explains, based on the Sifrei, that the root ch.n.n. refers to the request for a “matenat chinam” – an undeserved gift. When Moshe prayed for the right to enter the Land of Israel, he did not claim that he deserved this privilege, but rather begged God to allow him to enter in His infinite mercy and compassion. Rashi writes, “Even though the righteous are able rely upon their good deeds, they ask the Almighty only for an undeserved gift.”
Chazal here admonish us not to live with a feeling of entitlement, that we are somehow owed the blessings we wish for in life. Exceptionally righteous people, Rashi writes, might be expected to make requests on the basis of their worthiness, but they don’t, because the more righteous a person is, the more he humbly recognizes how little he deserves. A truly righteous person is honest and self-effacing, and is keenly aware of his deficiencies. As nobody – not even Moshe Rabbeinu – lives perfectly, without any mistakes or failures, there is nobody who can honestly claim to rightfully deserve all that he wants. Moreover, a truly righteous person understands that human beings are created to serve God, not to have God serve them. We are to humbly and submissively obey His will, not demand that He obeys ours. And thus when the righteous make their requests, they ask for a “matenat chinam,” a gift of which they feel undeserving, without any sense of entitlement or feeling that they are owed anything.
The lesson conveyed by the Sifrei’s comments applies to our interpersonal relationships, as well. In our dealings with other people, too, we should not necessarily assume that we are entitled to their favor and grace. Of course, there are certain legal obligations that people have towards one another, and certainly an employee may claim his wages and the victim of damage is rightfully expected to file a claim against the responsible party. However, outside the context of legal obligations, we should not live with the feeling that the people in our lives, or society in general, owe us the things we need and want. The question we should be asking ourselves is what more we could be doing to perfect ourselves and to contribute to the world, rather than what more we should be receiving from others. The benefits and favors we receive from other people should be viewed as a “matenat chinam,” an undeserved gift, rather than something we are owed. This mindset will help ensure that we devote our lives to the effort to grow, achieve, give and contribute, rather than complacently sitting back and expecting others to fulfill our wishes.
Originally appears on VBM