Principles From the Parsha: Prayer Primer

Written by Joshua Z. Rokach on . Posted in Torah

This week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, derives its name (translatable as “And I beseeched”) from its opening narrative. G-d had sworn to Moshe at Merivah (Numbers 20:12) that he would lead the Jews into the Land of Israel. After Aaron had died, G-d ordered Moshe to “Ascend … Mount Abarim and see the land … and you [shall die]” (Numbers 27:12-13). This week’s parsha opens with Moshe’s account of his response to this decree.

Moshe appealed to G-d to annul His oath and reverse His decision. G-d refused, said Moshe: “He told me, ‘Enough for you, do not continue to speak with Me anymore about this matter’” (Deuteronomy 3:26). G-d ordered Moshe to ascend the overlook and enjoy the panoramic view of the length and breadth of the land.

Moshe undertook a singular effort to convince G-d to annul the oath of Merivah. Even had Moshe succeeded, he could not have stayed on as leader. Our sages teach that prayer can erase an evil decree but cannot reverse a benefit. In this case, the decree at Merivah amounted to a double-edged sword. The evil decree of Moshe having to die in the wilderness carried with it a favor to Joshua, who would become the new Shepherd of Israel. Indeed, Rashi states that Moshe begged to enter Israel as a private citizen. Unlike his attempts after G-d had decided to punish the Jews, Moshe’s advocacy had no bearing on communal affairs.

Why did Moshe try so hard?

True, Moshe yearned to live in the Promised Land. However, we read three weeks ago in Rashi (Numbers 27:15-17) that Moshe longed for one of his two sons to succeed him, just as Elazar succeeded his father, Aaron, as High Priest. G-d turned him down and chose Joshua instead (Numbers 27:18). Nevertheless, not only did Moshe accede, he went out of his way to bolster his successor. G-d had asked Moshe to bless Joshua with one hand; Moshe did with both, as Rashi explains (Numbers 27:23). Yet here Moshe persevered.

Maaseh Rokeach (Amsterdam 1802) demonstrates that Moshe’s appeal to G-d encompassed more than his desire to live in Israel. After describing G-d’s rejection, Moshe admonished the Jews to keep the mitzvot. The narrative proceeds: “Then, Moshe designated three cities [of refuge] that [those guilty of manslaughter] shall flee there…” (Deuteronomy 4:41-42). Maaseh Rokeach notes the word “then” connecting Moshe’s designation with G-d’s rejection. The commentator explains that Moshe wanted to live in Israel in order to fulfill the mitzvot that apply only there. To placate him, G-d ordered Moshe to designate cities of refuge, which existed only as long as the Jews settled in Israel. From afar, Moshe performed one of the mitzvot he longed for.

Viewing Moshe’s appeal in this light makes sense of G-d’s response in verse 26: “Enough for you.” G-d told Moshe he had earned enough reward and did not need to add to it by performing more mitzvot in Israel. Also, Maaseh Rokeach’s commentary provides a different perspective on G-d responding to Moshe by ordering him to ascend the mountain. The Talmud teaches that each of the cities of refuge had to lie equidistant from its neighbor, to ease a killer’s flight. Moshe had to survey the landscape in order to choose the correct locations.

Moshe’s wish for his son to take over manifested a natural but material paternal instinct; entering the Land of Israel resulted from a spiritual yearning. Therefore, this time, Moshe insisted, as he did not with Joshua’s ascent to leadership.

Maaseh Rokeach’s departure from the literal reading of the verses in Chapter 3 adds to the lessons Rashi teaches about praying properly. Rashi comments that Moshe “beseeched,” rather than “prayed,” because he approached G-d as a supplicant. Moshe asked for G-d to exercise His discretion to do favors for those undeserving. Moshe could have invoked his righteousness, but did not. Next, Rashi points out that Moshe invoked G-d’s mercy, not justice. Moreover, Moshe opened his prayer with praise. “You began to show your servant Your greatness and Your strong hand.” Rashi concludes that we follow this model in our Amidah every day.

Maaseh Rokeach’s point that Moshe asked G-d for the opportunity to perform more mitzvot teaches a valuable lesson about how we should pray. We should put our request in the context of a larger cause. Like Moshe, we should not ask for long life, good health, or prosperity just for us to enjoy. Instead, we should ask for long life, health, and prosperity as a means to do good deeds and improve the world. We ask for the opportunity to elevate G-d’s glory.

G-d’s choosing cities of refuge as the mitzvah He allowed Moshe to perform teaches us something about G-d as we approach Him in prayer. Tractate Makot notes that Chapter 4, Verse 41 describes their location as “east toward the sun,” a redundant phrase. The word for “east,” mizrach, comes from the root for “sunrise.” The Talmud states that G-d commanded the authorities to cast sunlight for those who committed manslaughter (criminally negligent homicide). The equidistant locations of the cities meant that they lay within easy reach of everyone. In addition, the Talmud states that the Sanhedrin had to post directional signs to help fleeing killers find the nearest refuge.

A resident of the cities of refuge suffered in exile. The killer dared not escape, for outside the city, he risked death at the hands of the victim’s relatives. Yet, we see that G-d showed His mercy within the constraints of this harsh punishment. Finally, G-d allowed Moshe to fulfill one commandment involving Israel. G-d does not turn away supplicants altogether, even if He does not grant them everything they ask for. This should give us hope as we start the seven weeks of consolation toward the High Holidays.

By Joshua Z. Rokach

 Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland, and former gabbai of the main minyan at YISE and at Kesher Israel in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He has taught a weekly Talmud class at both synagogues, and has served as an officer and a member of the Board of Directors of both synagogues as well. A retired attorney, Joshua has lived in the Greater Washington area since 1976 and in Kemp Mill since 1986.