Sign In Forgot Password

You Can't Always Get What You Want - Vaetchanan 5781

Va'ethanan 5781 - July 24, 2021

If you know this tune by the Rolling Stones, please sing along:

You can’t always get what you want (x3)

But if you try sometimes, you just might find

You get what you need

You are not the only one who doesn’t always get what you want. In the verses that precede our Torah reading today, Moshe pleads to God, “Let me pass into and see the good land across the Jordan River, this good mountain, and Lebanon!” (Deuteronomy 3:25). God refuses to let Moshe enter the land but does allow him to ascend Mount Pisgah and see the panoramic image of the land of Israel with his very own eyes.

God has said yes to Moshe many times before - God accepts Moshe’s pleas to forgive the people Israel time and time again; God allows Moshe to see a glimpse of God; and God steps in to guide the people Israel with a pillar of cloud and fire when Moshe knows he cannot go it alone. 

This time, however, God cannot fully say yes. Moshe’s request is no longer to the benefit of his people. As the people Israel enter the land, they no longer need a spiritual leader and teacher; they need someone like Joshua to lead them to military victory and to help them feel pride in their land. As Moshe acted in the wrong when he hit the rock at Mei Meriva, the people Israel need to see the reality of consequences for the misdeeds of their leaders.

And perhaps, this timing of Moshe’s death is ideal for all parties; now that the people Israel know that Deuteronomy will be Moshe’s final speech, they may be inspired to listen more intently, to truly take note of their leaders’ call to mitzvot in this land they are about to enter. Practically speaking, Moshe is also growing old at this moment in time. He is a 120-year-old human - years take a toll on even the holiest among us; even Moshe is not physically invincible. At the end of the Torah, while Moshe does not get what he wants, he does get what he needs - a chance to see the land to which he has worked to bring his people and a chance to make a meaningful impact with his final speech.

If Moshe can’t always get what he wants, we certainly can’t always get what we want either. However, like Moses, if we make the effort, we may get at least what we need. When trying to get that girl or guy in high school, we may have stumbled upon another love instead. Studying and failing to become an engineer may have taught us that another career path was the right way to go. And while commitment to a job or relationship may come with biting criticism, that criticism often teaches us more about who and how we can strive to be. 

Sometimes, we need an unexpected change in scenery, and sometimes, we need to be knocked down a peg to get back up with even more strength and confidence. And sometimes, what we experience may not feel great to us, but may be healthy for our loved ones or our wider community. Of course, we may get exactly what we want; however, there is no chance of that happening if we do not at least take the first steps to try for our goals and ideals. When we find ourselves in that place that Moshe experiences while looking out at the land of Israel - not quite where we wanted or expected - we must ask ourselves, how does this experience fulfill my needs? How can I find gratitude and move forward within this space God has granted me? 

Remember, too, that you may not always get what you want or what you need. No one needs serious illness, mourning, hunger, or abuse. The Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan is asked whether his suffering is worthwhile to him, and his answer provides insight: “Not my suffering, and not its reward.” All the same, he allows his friend to come sit and cry with him and then, eventually, to give him a hand and help him stand up when he is ready (Berakhot 6b). We are allowed to dwell in our suffering, to know when we do not need or want this moment, as long as at some point, we welcome the emotional and physical assistance our loved ones provide.

In all of his courses on liturgy, Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies always opens with a Garth Brooks song entitled “Unanswered Prayers.” The musician tells a story of running into his high-school girlfriend and reflecting on his time with her:

She was the one that I'd wanted for all times

And each night I'd spend prayin' that God would make her mine

And if He'd only grant me this wish I wished back then

I'd never ask for anything again

Throughout the song, Garth Brooks realizes how little chemistry they really had...

And as she walked away, well, I looked at my wife

And then and there I thanked the good Lord for the gifts in my life


Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers

Remember when you're talkin' to the man upstairs

And just because He may not answer doesn't mean He don't care

'Cause some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers

Although Garth Brooks wanted to be with his high-school girlfriend forever, and although he asked God for that reality again and again, God granted him with the gift of the unexpected instead. At times, we, too, must accept that the best outcome is not always what we ask for. And we, too, have the opportunity to perceive the gift in the sometimes puzzling answers God delivers to our requests. After all…

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes, you just might find

You get what you need.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sun, July 14 2024 8 Tammuz 5784