We all have such moments. Some of us have them more often; others experience them once in a lifetime. Moments when an issue never quite understood becomes clear and makes perfect sense; moments when our previous perspectives are challenged, resulting in a radically new understanding of the subject at hand — they’re otherwise known as “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moments.
For me, really understanding the first word of this week’s Torah portion was such a moment.
In last week’s Torah portion, G-d informs Moses that due to his sin of hitting the rock, he would be barred from entering the land of Israel. This week’s Torah portion, Vaetchanan, begins with Moses imploring G-d to alter the verdict and allow him to enter the land. Rashi comments that the term “implore” is one of the 10 terms the Torah uses to refer to prayer. It connotes an appeal to G-d’s mercy to grant an undeserved favor.
According to the Midrash, Moses prayed 515 times to have the decree annulled. This is derived from the numerical value of the Hebrew word vaetchanan, “and I implored.” Moses spared no effort in beseeching G-d, and was ultimately granted permission to merely observe the land from a distance. Thus it is written, “Ascend to the top of the cliff and raise your eyes westward, northward, southward and eastward, and see with your eyes, for you shall not cross the Jordan.”
This multitude of prayers seems to be, frankly, inappropriate. Moses had justifiably forfeited his right to enter the land of Israel because of his shortcomings; wasn’t it both audacious and excessive to compose 515 prayers? Indeed, G-d’s response is precisely that “it is too much for you! Do not continue to speak with Me further.”
For many of us, praying to G-d is quite a difficult task, stemming from a feeling of distance and “disconnectedness” due to the chasm that exists between creation and Creator. G-d is almighty and omnipresent, while we are mere humans with limited intellect, prone to error. This reality compounds the challenge we face in trying to feel close to G-d.
And when we do muster sufficient courage to approach Him with our requests, any negative response is met with disenchantment, and we resign ourselves to the final verdict without resorting to additional prayer. It is as if we are dealing with a king whose edicts are final with no ifs, ands or buts.
Evidently Moses had an entirely different approach. He perceived prayer as an island in time, when G-d makes Himself accessible to each and every one of us. It is a time of closeness when we can spend some intimate moments together; nothing else exists besides the Creator and oneself.
Rather than perceiving G-d’s unlimited nature as distant and uncompromising, prayer teaches us that it can be seen as an unparalleled opportunity. It is precisely because of His omnipresence that He can listen and communicate to every one of us on an individual level. With this perception, even when we feel that our prayers and requests “weren’t fulfilled” we can feel comfortable in continuing our dialogue with Him. Isn’t this what a merciful father would expect from an only son or daughter?
Moreover, the feeling of intimacy in prayer isn’t just part of the ambiance, while the actual request is the point of the exercise. Quite the contrary; intimacy and closeness are the very essence of true prayer, while fulfillment of one’s request is “merely” the natural outcome. Compare this to the close and loving relationship between parent and child — that in and of itself is the greatest assurance that the child’s requests and needs will be fulfilled.
In Moses’ eyes, composing many prayers was the natural response of a child to his loving parent. There were many reasons why his prayers were not accepted, but G-d’s major objection was that prayer must be done in a respectful and controlled manner. Ultimately G-d is not only our father but our king as well, and we must act accordingly.
This insight into the true nature of prayer was truly a defining moment for me, helping me appreciate prayer for what it really is: a magnificent gift from G-d. We should open our hearts and minds to internalize this important message of a close and regular relationship through prayer. Statistics show that those who pray regularly live healthier, longer and more fulfilled lives.
There is only one way to find out! PJC
Rabbi Mendy Schapiro is the director of Chabad of Monroeville. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh. Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.