It is the organizing principle of Judaism that the roots of all that we believe, all that we understand about how the world works, all that we observe are to be found in the Torah. It is, therefore, a bit baffling, that one of the central enterprises of Jewish communal and individual practice sees so little expression in the Torah. This enterprise is, of course, prayer.
Most of the communication we do witness in the Torah is very personal . . . God in relevatory conversation with Abraham or Rebekah or Moses delivers a message and the human involved responds as he or she will, in a personal, not formulaic, manner.
When we humans pray, our prayers, whether personal or communal, express our thanks to God, our appreciation of God's unique role in our lives, or requests for divine help and support. Over the centuries, our communal Jewish prayer has become bound by both halachic (Jewish legal) and traditional (minhag/custom) criteria. When we pray as individuals, of course, we either turn to the inspiring words of the siddur/prayer book or we pray spontaneously from our own hearts and minds.
Moses' relationship with God, even among all the others to whom God expressed individual revelations, is unique. God and Moshe are intimates. They huddle in the Tent of Meeting with no one else around and confer about the people they are leading together through the wilderness. But in public, Moses conveys God's wishes, expectations, teachings to the people.
And then, in a unique moment, in this week's parashah, Moshe is moved to prayer. His sister, Miriam, (and his brother Aaron, as well) has defied Moses' own stature in the community and Moses' choice of a wife as well, and God has stricken Miriam with leprosy as a punishment for her public defiance. (For rather technical reasons relating to his role as High Priest, Aaron is spared)
Perhaps disturbed by the inequity of the punishment meted out to his sister, perhaps understanding the source of his siblings' frustrations, perhaps secure in his role and relationship with God, we sense no defensiveness in Moses. His sole response is the Torah's first prayer for healing:
אל נא רפא נא לה Eil na, r'fa na lah: Please God, Please heal her.
With these five words, Moses has introduced a whole new aspect of God's intervention in human affairs: God heals. These five words have inspired and supported . . . and, yes, disappointed, our people for millenia. We rejoice when our prayers for healing are "heard." When the ill recover. We are confused, bereft, angry when our ill do not recover . . . why was our prayer not "heard?!"
We may, along with the rabbinic sages of our preceding generations, contend that with the demise of the age of prophecy the dynamic of communication between humans and God changed forever. We are a generation that is not privileged to attain the intimacy with God that informed Moses' life. Therefore, we should not expect our prayers to be answered the same way his was.
But then, as we move forward in the Torah, we will see that one of Moses' most passionate pleas to God will not be "heard." Moses will not be allowed into the Land after all, but is expected to resign himself to dying in the wilderness.
Even Moses' prayers are not always "heard."
There is comfort and hope in Moses' prayer to God: אל נא רפא נא לה, Please God, Please heal her. When matters of life and death are out of our hands, we have no place to turn but to God, the Source of Life. When Moses stood and uttered his prayer on behalf of his rebellious sister, he could not know, could not assume, what God's response would be. When we utter our words of prayer for healing, we stand, as did Moses, not knowing whether our loved one will be healed or will be taken from us. But Moses, in his short prayer, has shown us how to hope, has provided us with one more action we can take on behalf of those we love.
And then, we, like Moses, are left with the knowledge that we are but human . . .
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.