This week we read one of the most dramatic sections of the Torah, the section dealing with the “Egel”. The entire episode requires much study in order to attempt to understand the actions of any of the parties involved. In this shiur I would like to focus on the aftermath of the sin and the famous prayer of Moshe Rabenu.
The Gemara in Brachot describes various biblical prayers and “pray”-ers as the basis for understanding teffila on one hand, and instructing us in the proper method of prayer on the other.
Amongst those chosen are Chana and Moshe. The teffila of both of these individuals was accepted by God and therefore serves as a model for us all. I would like to note a distinction between the two of them and how this may lead us to a different concept of approaching God.
When Chana offers her teffila she approaches God as a tormented soul. She is plagued, both by herself and by her co-wife, with the agony of not having any children. She makes the trip all the way to the Bet Hamikdash and pours out her heart before God, pleading her case. The Gemara describes her prayer as a two pronged “attack”, on one hand she begs and pleads while on the other she phrases her prayer in terms of a demand of God to provide her with a child.
Chana is the prototype of prayer that each any every individual has felt at one time or another. Burning desires and dreams form the basis for such prayer. The individual is overcome with need, and has no other place to turn except to God Himself for assistance. We learn from Chana how to harness our emotions and feelings into a silent prayer, a conversation between ourselves and God.
If one has never cried during the Amida it is clear that they have not experienced “Tefilat Chana”. The tears may be those of pain or those of joy but they must be real tears. Such a tefila starts deep down in the soul and is truly what Rav Soloveichick describes as a “kium she balev”. (See “On Repentance” pp71-74).
This is not really a form of prayer that can be taught, as it emanates from an inner experience and by its very nature is boundless and practically uncontrollable. The guidelines that are offered in the Gemara simply help us articulate and manage the conversation.
Moshe Rabenu conducts a very different type of prayer. First of all he is not concerned with his own well being. Moshe is not making a personal request at all; in fact it is Hashem who suggests wiping out Am Yisrael and starting over with Moshe as the new Patriarch. On a personal level this sounds like a great deal, one that I would imagine Chana would have eagerly accepted.
Moshe plays a much different role; he is the leader of the nation. His very task is to put the people first. Moshe immediately takes on the role of lawyer even more than that of a pray-er. His tactic is a clever one, he “convinces” God that it would be a bad idea for Him to wipe out the nation as it would appear that he was unable to truly realize the goal for which He took them out of Egypt. Was all that effort really needed just in order to kill them in the desert?
Moshe takes on a similar role in parshat Shelach when he once again pleads Am Yisrael’s case after the sin of the spies. Once again he employs the same tactic, only in this case his claim is that the residents of Eretz Yisrael would feel that they were invincible. Killing the people in the desert would be misinterpreted as Gods inability to bring them into the land and conquer the inhabitants. It is the same argument but simply a change of the relevant non-Jewish population watching the CNN.
(In this framework I am not interested in addressing the fundamental question of Moshe’s ability to “change” God’s “mind” or the efficacy of any of our teffilot. This is an issue of cardinal importance but beyond our scope here).
(The claim that God should save us so as not to create a chilul Hashem is a wide spread theme most clearly expressed in the Haftara for this week (Parshat Para).
Moshe creates a different model for teffila than that of Chana. He prepares his case and meticulously presents each and every point until he finally receives the needed reply.
We learn from Moshe that there are times in which prayer is not meant to help us achieve any personal gain and the only framework that we are to be successful in is that of the wider view of Am Yisrael.
I think that this is the basis of our practice of always using the plural in our prayers. Even in situations when we are clearly referring to a single individual, as when davening for someone who is not well, we include them “amongst all the sick of Am Yisrael”. The power of communal prayer we learn from Moshe.
(In this context please see Rav Soloveichik “On Repentence” 97-120)
It is interesting to note that Moshe Rabenu is known for being an expert pray-er yet he is refused on one particular occasion. When Moshe approaches God with his request to enter Eretz Yisrael he is turned down. Although it is clear that the greatest teffilot may still be turned away by God, despite the fact that they are phrased by the best and brightest, it is significant in my mind that he is rejected in the one case that he tries to use “Teffilat Chana”. It may be that whatever element that Channa was able to infuse into her teffila Moshe was not. Moshe’s greatest strength is as an advocate for the people, yet his ability to plead for himself seems to be lacking.
We note, as well, the shift in Moshe’s personality from the original scene at the burning bush where he claims that the “people will not listen to him” to the “new” Moshe who offers a clear personal sacrifice in order to save the nation. This sets the new tone, which will carry us through the rest of the Torah into some of the most difficult challenges that he will meet in his new role as the defender of Am Yisrael.