Parashat Va’etchanan, Deuteronomy 3:25
Is the world getting better or worse?
About ten years ago, I got into a good-natured debate with one of our Hebrew school students
about the state of the world.
She — a child of twelve — insisted the world, day by day, is becoming a worse place to live.
Disheartened that a twelve-year-old had already lost hope, I expressed my heartfelt conviction
that the world is indeed improving.
Ultimately, we both compromised our positions slightly — for that is the essence of Jewish debate
— but the substance of our conversation has remained with me for more than a decade.
What do you think? Is the world around us improving or deteriorating?
Is there hope? Are you losing hope?
If so, then perhaps you stand with Moses as he pleads with God in this week’s Torah portion,
titled Va’etchanan — “And Moses Pleaded.”
This week’s portion is sometimes nicknamed “The Little Torah,” because it contains both the Ten
Commandments, and “Shema Yisrael.”
But let’s take a step back.
Moses begins this week by imploring God one last time to allow him to enter the Promised Land.
Pleads Moses, “Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good in the land...” (Deuteronomy 3:25)
For most commentators, this is Moses’s final request to physically enter Israel. But is there
another way to read this?
The great Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk suggested we may have been reading Moses’ last
request incorrectly. He taught that, rather than focus on “the land,” we should instead consider
the words, “the good.”
Indeed, it was not the land that Moses pleaded to see before he died, argues the Rabbi, but
rather the good in humanity.
For more than forty years, Moses led the Israelites who continuously showed themselves to be
difficult, stiff-necked, rebellious and unappreciative.
The Rabbi of Kotsk asserted that Moses, in the face of all the world’s shortcomings, was asking at
the end of his life, to have his eyes opened to the good in the world.
What a perspective for these times.
We are living through a challenging period. From some angles, our world seems broken and
frightening. Many families and friendships are stressed. Often we feel lost in the wilderness.
But Jewish tradition has seen this before. We are a people who have endured great peaks and
valleys. We acknowledge that this is part of ongoing creation.
Our Kabbalistic tradition reminds us that “before we ascend, we must descend.” Still, there is so
much to be grateful for.
As Rabbi Dov Ber Weisman wrote, ”We are all so wealthy. But, because of habit, we take our
riches for granted. If you are young, then rejoice in your youth. If you are married or have children
then rejoice in that wealth. In short, if you are walking and breathing the God-given air, rejoice in
the exhilaration of life.”
There was once a man who lived in Eastern Europe who was troubled by all of the suffering in the
He went from village to village, rabbi to rabbi, questioning the Jewish teaching that, ”a person is
supposed to bless God for the bad just as a person blesses God for the good.”
“How can this be?” he asked.
Finally, a wise rabbi advised him to visit the great Rabbi Zusha of Hanipoli — perhaps he could
provide the answer. After a long walk, the student finally came upon Rabbi Zusha’s home. He was
shocked at what he observed.
Rabbi Zusha was living in poverty. He and his family were afflicted with illness. His home was in
The student was astonished at what he saw.
Nevertheless, oblivious to his circumstances, Rabbi Zusha welcomed him cheerfully.
The student got down to business. “I went to the holy Rabbi to ask him how is it possible to bless
God for the bad the same way as we bless Him for the good, and the Rabbi told me only you can
help me in this matter.”
Rabbi Zusha said, “This is indeed a very interesting question. But why did your Rabbi send you to
me? How would I know? He should have sent you to someone who has experienced suffering.”
Rabbi Zusha’s point is a profound one. Often how we view our situation is a matter of perception.
We do not live in a perfect world. But we do possess the precious gift of life. How we use or
appreciate that gift is really up to us.
Once, Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm, gathered his followers to deliver one of the shortest sermons
of all time. He slapped his hand on the pulpit and declared, “It is enough that one is alive.”
Within those few words, the Rabbi taught that the secret to life is to appreciate the good in what
Moses understood this, realizing he’d lost his vision. And that’s what he was asking for: for God to
re-open his eyes towards the “good in the land.”
Admittedly, we live in a challenging world. But in reality, the world is neither good nor bad. It just
And that’s why we should never allow one day, one month, one year, one setback or more to
define our permanent perceptions.
Are some days or years more difficult than others? Absolutely. But we are told to never give up.
We must descend before we rise.
That’s what Moses needed to see -- exhausted after leading the Israelites for forty years in the
This week I read an article noting the many ways the world is getting better each day. That in spite
of so many immediate stresses the world is indeed healing.
We need to look beyond our own personal borders to understand — perhaps as Moses did before
he died — that this is still a good world.
Sometimes we just need to be reminded that there is good in the land, and that life is full of
blessings. It does not come automatically. Our tradition teaches that this will arrive through hard
work and acts of lovingkindness.
I still believe that, in spite of its peaks and valleys, the world is getting better each day.
And if, like Moses, if you need a little extra hope, please click on the link at the end of this e-
sermon which may help remind you of the words written in 1967 by Bob Thiele and George David
Weiss, made famous by the late Louis Armstrong:
That this is a still “a wonderful, wonderful world.”
And there is so much good within it.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv
Rabbi Irwin Huberman