“I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying: My Lord God, You began to show Your servant Your greatness and Your mighty hand, that who is a god in the heavens or on the earth, who can perform like Your actions, and like Your mighty deeds? Please, let me cross and I will see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that good mountain, and the Lebanon.” (Devarim 3:23-25)


Moshe continues his epic address to the Israelites by informing them that he entreated God for permission to enter the land of Canaan. The verb he uses, vaetchanan, from which our parsha takes its name, is one of ten terms in the Bible for prayer (Rashi, citing the Sifrei). Translations of this term in various Chumashim are: pleading, supplicating, beseeching and imploring. The Midrash (Sifrei) refers to another instance in which this word is used (Proverbs 18:23), “A poor person speaks with supplications (tachanunim) and a rich man responds with impudence.” A poor person has little to offer and requests with humility and submission, whereas a rich man might believe he deserves what he is asking for. Rashi (Devarim 3:23) explains that our verse has a similar meaning. When Moshe petitioned God for entry into Canaan, he did so like one who asks for a gift he does not deserve: “Although the righteous could make their requests dependent on their good deeds, they seek from the Omnipresent nothing but a free gift [i.e. a handout].”  Moshe knew that God is responsive to such requests because He told him [after the sin of the golden calf], “I shall show favour to whom I shall show favour” (Shmot 33:19). The verb achon, “I shall show favour”, has the same root as vaetchanan. Moshe possessed many merits. He had served as God’s faithful servant for forty years; he was the committed leader of the Israelites through all of their travails; he taught the nation Torah, fought their battles and pleaded for their forgiveness time and time again. Yet, when he implored God to allow him to cross the Jordan, he did so as one who had no merits, as a weak and puny human being standing before the Infinite with nothing to offer in returns for God’s grace. 


We see from the verses above that a supplication is an appeal to God’s grace. It often comes from the depths of despair and desperation. When Jacob’s sons were imprisoned by the viceroy of Egypt (who was actually Joseph), they berated themselves for selling their brother some thirty-seven years prior (Bereishit 42:21), “They said one to another: But we are guilty with regard to our brother, that we saw the anguish of his soul as he pleaded (b’hitchanano) with us and we did not heed. For that, this anguish has befallen us.” It seems that when Joseph was snatched by his brothers and placed in the pit in the field, he begged them to spare him. Here too, the Torah uses the verb chanan, implying an entreaty from the very depths of one’s soul.


This form of prayer, known as tachanun, has become a regular feature of our services. In fact, we recite tachanun twice every day, once at Shacharit and once at Mincha. Jewish prayer consists of three components: shevach, praising God; bakasha, requesting our needs and hodayah, thanks (Rambam, Hilchot Tefilla 1:1). The weekday Amidah is constructed along these lines: the first three blessings are praise; the middle thirteen blessing are requests and the last three blessing are thanks. Following the Amidah, we recite tachanun. The mood of this prayer is very different from the other parts of the service and this is reflected in the way in which tachanun is recited: with one’s head bowed, leaning upon one’s arm, like a person in dire straits (Rambam, ibid 5:14; Shulchan Orach Chaim 131:1 and Mishna, Berura, ad loc, #3). In fact, this prayer is referred to as nefilat apayim, “falling on the face”. This practice recalls the behaviour of Moshe, Aharon and Joshua, all of whom fell on their faces before Hashem in times of crisis (see Bamidbar 16:22 and Joshua 7:6). Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Orach Chaim 131:2) writes that it is our custom to “fall upon our faces” only when in the presence of a Sefer Torah. This custom has its source in a verse from Joshua (7:6) which describes the leader as “falling on his face before the Ark of the Lord.” In Jerusalem, which is considered a city “before the Lord”, one may perform nefilat apayim even where there is no Sefer Torah present (Igrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3:129).


In the Ashkenazi rite, the main part of tachanun is Psalm chapter six (verses 2 to 11), “Hashem, do not rebuke me in Your anger, nor chastise me in Your rage.” In verse 10, we find the word for supplication appears: “The Lord has heard my pleas (techinati). The Lord will accept my prayer.” Additional verses and entreaties are added before and after the psalm. These include, “And David said to Gad, ‘I am exceedingly distressed. Let us fall into Hashem’s hand for His mercies are abundant, but let us not fall into human hands’” (II Samuel 24:14); “We know not what we do – but our eyes are upon You!” On Mondays and Thursdays, which are days of Divine favour (see Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 134:1 and Mishna Berura ad loc #6), a longer form of tachanun is recited. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory (commentary to the Koren Siddur page 145), notes that the additional prayers on Monday and Thursday were written by scholars who had suffered either under Roman, Gothic or Frankish persecutions. He writes, “Their mood bespeaks the tears of Jews throughout the centuries of exile who experienced persecution, expulsion, humiliation, and often bloodshed at the hands of those amongst whom they lived.” One of the most powerful lines we recite on these days is, “Look down from heaven and see how we have become an object of scorn and derision among the nations.  We are regarded as sheep led to the slaughter, to be killed, destroyed, beaten and humiliated. Yet, despite all this, we have not forgotten Your name. Please do not forget us.” The musician, Yaakov Shwekey, has a song inspired by these moving words (


Tachanun, with its sombre mood, is not recited on Shabbat or festivals or in the presence of a groom on his wedding day and for seven days thereafter, if he is present in shul. It is also omitted at Shacharit if a bris will be held in the shul that day or if the father, sandek or mohel are present at the service. We also omit tachanun at a Shiva house so as not to compound the grief of the mourners (see Orach Chaim 131:1-7). Unfortunately, because of the unfounded negativity surrounding tachanun (and its length on Mondays and Thursdays!) people are always happy when it is omitted. Often spurious reasons will be advanced to justify its omission. There is a joke in the Torah world to the effect that “if the non-Jews would know how much joy we get from omitting tachanun, they would all convert!” This is most unfortunate because it is an incredibly powerful prayer. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b) describes the sad tale of how the great Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was excommunicated by his colleagues because he refused to follow the majority ruling on a halachic matter. His wife, Ima Shalom, was the sister of Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin. After the ban was promulgated, she made sure that her husband would never “fall on his face” (say tachanun). She knew full well the power of Rabbi Eliezer’s prayer, in general, and his supplications, in particular, and she feared for the life of her brother who had brought such shame upon her husband. One day, she thought it was Rosh Chodesh on which tachanun is omitted, so she did not watch her husband at prayer. However, she miscalculated the calendar and walked in to find Rabbi Eliezer bowed with his face to the floor. She said to her husband, “Get up, for you have killed my brother!” Soon an announcement was made that Rabban Gamliel had died. When Rabbi Eilezer asked her how she knew about her brother’s death, she replied, “I have received a tradition from my grandfather’s house: all the gates to heaven are closed except the gate of prayers that come from abused people.” Tachanun is a might prayer indeed!


Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom! Rabbi Liebenberg


Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:



This Wednesday is Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av. The Talmud (Ta’anit 26b) refers to it as one of the two happiest days on the calendar in ancient Israel (the other being Yom Kippur when sins are forgiven). Several reasons are given: (i) The Tribes of Israel were permitted to intermarry after an initial ban barring all women who inherited property from their fathers not to marry a man from another Tribe. (ii) The woodchoppers completed the lengthy task of procuring wood for the altar in the Temple. (iii) The generation that came out of Egypt ceased to die in the wilderness after 40 years of wandering. (iv) The guards set in place by the king of the Northern Province of Israel, Yeravam ben Nevat, to prevent

Jews from the north making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, were removed. (v) Those killed in the city of Betar during Bar Kochba’s failed rebellion against Hadrian were finally brought to rest after being denied burial by the Romans.

















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