In this week's Torah portion, we read how Moses fervently prayed that he be granted the privilege of entering the Promised Land. "Oh Lord … let me go over, I pray Thee, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan … but the Lord was wroth with me … and hearkened not unto me; and the Lord said unto me: 'Speak no more unto me of this matter.' " But his prayer was denied.
And yet wasn't so much more granted that he also might have prayed for? His disciple Joshua entered the land. His children, B'nai Yisrael, entered the land. He was buried in close proximity to the land.
He was permitted to at least see the land. Could he not take comfort in the fact that, although his major goal was not achieved, so much else was? This is a question that I have been asking myself for many years, whenever the Torah portion of Vaet'hanan comes around.
Recently, I discovered the answer to that question. I had the rewarding, though poignantly painful, experience of leading a retreat for bereaved parents.
They came from a variety of backgrounds, and the circumstances of the death of their children ranged from terrorist murders to accidental drownings to long-term illnesses. They were troubled by the question of the efficacy of prayer. "Why were our prayers for our dear children not heard by the Almighty?"
I thought that I was being helpful when I shared with them some of my own ideas about prayer. I was wrong. They did not find it helpful at all. As one bereaved mother in the group told me, "I was praying for the most important thing in the world — the life of my poor baby. Can I take comfort in the relatively trivial aspects of my prayer? Can I be consoled by the fact that he was killed instantly by the terrorists bullet and suffered no pain?"
I learned a new lesson at that moment. I learned that when there is something that you value above all else, you can tolerate no compromises. Some goals are so important that the achievement of lesser goals means nothing.
This is how we can understand the fact that Moses was disconsolate when his prayer was rejected. To him, entry into the Holy Land was of paramount importance.
Not that he sought to eat the fruits and gain the material pleasures of the land flowing with milk and honey. He knew that he could reach spiritual peaks in the land of Israel that even he could never attain outside the land. He wanted to enter the Promised Land. No lesser promises could possibly have satisfied him.
This Sabbath is known as Shabbat Nachamu. It celebrates the end of the three weeks of mourning for the Temple's destruction, and inaugurates the seven weeks of consolation. This week, besides reading Vaet'hanan, we also read from the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah, which begins, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people …"
The message is clear. Our history is replete with unanswered prayers. It is difficult to take consolation when we have suffered so. But the message of Isaiah is clear: There is a time, and hopefully it is very near, when even the pain of the unanswered prayer can be assuaged.
As the great Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz once wrote: "These words of the prophets are like balm upon a wound, or like a soft breath upon a fevered brow."
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PhD., is currently the executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.