This week we have a double parsha reading, Chukat/Balak, outside of Israel. (In Israel we read Chukat one week and Balak the next.) The first parsha speaks of the laws of the Red Heifer. It also tells of Moses' sin at the "Waters of Contention" and later of the death of Aaron. Parshat Balak, tells of Bilaam's attempt to curse the Jewish People, his utter failure and how his curse was turned into blessings.
We will take a look at a verse & the Rashi comment from Parshat Chukat.
"And the people came to Moses and they said, 'We have sinned for we have spoken against Hashem and you. Pray to Hashem and let Him remove from us the serpants.' And Moses prayed on behalf of the people."
And Moses prayed - RASHI: From here [we learn] that he of whom one seeks forgiveness should not be so cruel as not to forgive.
A LOOK AT THE COMMENT
I find this comment strange for several reasons. Does Rashi's comment stem from a difficulty in the verse? It is hard to see how the words in the dibbur hamatchil are problematic. As you look at the verse, what do you think?
IS SOMETHING BOTHERING RASHI?
I think not. Rashi says clearly "from here we learn" which means that the verse, perhaps its content or its wording, teaches us a lesson. There needn't be any problem in the verse for us to learn a lesson from it.
But there is still room for further analysis. What would you ask?
A Question: Rashi's comment is on the words "Moses prayed." Moses was asked by the people to pray to Hashem and he did so. What has this got to do with Moses' forgiveness? God, not Moses, was asked to forgive the people. How is Moses' forgiveness relevant here?
Another Question: Do I need Scriptural evidence that one should not be cruel and not offer forgiveness if one requests it?! Why would one think otherwise?
An Answer: The Midrash (which is Rashi's source) points out that Moses prayed immediately, upon the people's request. Notice that the people asked him to pray to God to remove the serpents. Moses, without question or comment, immediately prays. We see this immediacy, as well, from the fact that the statement that Moses prayed is in the same verse as their request. By placing both their request and Moses' positive reaction in the same verse, the Torah conveys the idea of immediacy.
You will remember that the people had spoken out against both God and Moses. God responded by sending serpents against the people. The people then admitted the error of their ways "we have sinned because we spoke against Hashem and against you." Their request for a prayer on their behalf was in effect, a request for forgiveness. The fact that they asked Moses himself to intercede for them, is an implicit request for Moses' forgiveness as well. This partially answers our first question.
But why the need to teach us not to be cruel?
If Moses did not pray for them, that would certainly be cruel. How could he possibly have refused?
Before pursuing this question, let us look at a very similar situation in Tanach. In I Samuel, Chapter 12, the people request that Samuel give them a king. Samuel was the Judge in those days. As you reread these chapters you see that their request for a king was an insult both to Hashem and to Samuel. Yet we see that Samuel, as Moses before him, acceded to the people's request to beseech God's forgiveness (12:19 ff). Then Samuel makes a telling statement:
"And I, also, far be it from me to sin against Hashem and refrain from praying on your behalf, rather I shall instruct you in the proper path." (I Samuel 12:23)
We see clearly that Samuel had learned from Moses' conduct here. He even considered it a sin were he not to pray for the people, even though they had insulted him as well as Hashem.
Now we return to our question: How could Moses (or Samuel, for that matter) possibly be cruel and justify refusing their request to beseech God on their behalf?
An Answer: The people had insulted both Moses and God. Moses might have forgiven them for their affront against his authority, but what right did he have to ask God to forgive them their more serious sin against Him? It would have been easy and even reasonable for Moses to rationalize the "cruelty" of not interceding on their behalf in praying to God. Let us remember that the people's "teshuva" was spurred on by fear of the deaths caused by the attacking serpents, so it wasn't the purest of repentance. In spite of all this, we see that Moses did not think in such a "righteous" way. He put these considerations aside and went immediately to the task of praying for the people. Notice that Samuel said that first he would pray to God, then he would "instruct them in the proper path." He realized that before any mussar, he should fulfill their request of praying to God. Later there will be time to "instruct them in the proper path."
This is the lesson we learn from Moses' unselfish behavior as described in this verse.