ואתחנן אל ידוד בעת ההוא לאמר
“And I pleaded with the Lord at that time, saying…”
At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Vaetchanan, Moses is reminding the Jewish people how he pleaded with God, begging to be given the opportunity to come into the Promised Land – all to no avail, or mostly to no avail. Moses asked “let me go over and see the land,” and God’s response was that Moses could see the land, but only from afar – he was not to go over into the Promised Land.
There is a lot of Midrash and commentary on the opening word of our parsha. What is the deeper meaning of “vaetchanan,” and I pleaded? The word implies supplication, as in our daily prayers of supplication which are called tachanun, from the same root. Rashi tells us that the language of “chanun” (the same root as vaetchanan and tachanun, but another form, usually translated “grace”) implies asking for a free gift. Moses was so righteous, with so many good deeds and so few sins, he could have rightfully insisted that God owed him; but the language of “vaetchanan” implies he asked for a gift, not for something he had coming. Rashi brings proof from a verse where God says “I will be gracious to who I choose to be gracious to.” In other words, not necessarily strictly to those who deserve it the most.
Poor Moses! All those years of leading the people, totally giving himself over to the task, and he’s denied the one thing he asks for himself! The Midrash brings a story which says it’s “like a king who had a favorite, who had the power to appoint generals, governors, and commanders-in-chief. Later, the people saw him entreating the gate-keeper to let him enter the palace, and he would not permit him. Everyone was amazed at this and said, Yesterday he was appointing generals, governors, and commanders-in-chief and now he in vain begs the gate-keeper to let him enter the palace. The answer given to them was: ‘ [His] hour is past.”Poor Moses. His “hour is past!”
The Midrash also says that Moses prayed at that time 515 times, the numerical value of the word “vaetchanan.” Some would learn from this Midrash that if Moses prayed 515 times, we too should pray 515 times for the things we need – that we should persist, never give up, etc. Of course despite Moses’ 515 pleadings, he still didn’t get what he wanted. So would that teach, God forbid, that prayer is futile?
I don’t think that’s the message to take. There are plenty of other examples when Moses’ prayers are accepted, like when he prayed for Miriam to be healed. It does teach us perhaps that there is no direct connection between how fervently we pray and whether or not our wishes are granted – but that’s hardly news to us, as anyone who has prayed fervently for the health of a loved one and watched them decline anyway knows. We don’t only pray because we expect God to grant our wishes when we ask, but we pray because we need to pour our hearts out to someone when we are in pain. Moses was so pained at not being able to cross the Jordan he poured his heart out 515 times … until God finally had to tell him “enough!”
God telling Moses “enough” reminds me of my ambivalent feelings about the liturgy for Tisha b’Av, as well the whole idea of saying tachanun, supplications, while on an airplane taking you to the Promised Land (a subject I mentioned in my blog about our arrival in Israel). In the Amidah (one of our central prayers) that we recite on the afternoon of Tisha b’Av (the day we mourn the loss of the Temple and other disasters) there is a little supplication we add that starts with the word “nacham,” comfort us. This prayer says “Lord our God, comfort the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the destroyed and disgraced city, desolate, without her children…etc., etc.” I couldn’t say the words. I got started, and stopped. It was just too ridiculous to me to sit there and talk about disgraced, desolate Jerusalem, while sitting in a vibrant lively Jerusalem filled with Jews.
There are those who say that we should not make any changes in the liturgy. If the prayers were good enough for our ancestors, they are good enough for us. The Messiah hasn’t come yet, the Temple has not been rebuilt, so we should say the same prayers our ancestors have said for thousands of years.
At the other extreme there are those who “of course” we should change our prayers. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, did not believe in saying words you don’t believe – so he made radical changes in the prayer book.
For me, the ideal is found in the middle – although I admit in this case not exactly the middle. I have a strong bias in favor of retaining the traditional text and struggling with it. For example, many moderns are troubled by the idea of animal sacrifice and would like to delete references to the practice from the prayer book. But from his writings it seems pretty clear that Rambam (Maimonides) the great 12th century rabbi was also troubled by animal sacrifice, yet he kept the same words. Sometimes there is a benefit to struggling with words and ideas that other Jews have struggled with for hundreds if not thousands of years. At the same time, for me there are limits. One prime example is that little piyut (religious poem) in the Tisha b’Av Amidah – for me it is clearly time to revise that one.
So what would I say instead? How about the following:
“Lord our God, comfort your children whose redemption is incomplete. The sound of the bride and the sound of the groom are once again heard in Jerusalem, and we are grateful. But our joy is incomplete as peace is but a dream, and our Temple, the symbol of peace and redemption is not yet rebuilt. Strengthen us, Lord, in our efforts to make peace with our cousins the Ishmaelites, help us to achieve that day predicted by your prophet Isaiah, the day when the lion lays down with the lamb, the day when ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.’ Do not turn your face from us at this difficult time when we remember the tragedies that have befallen your people.”