Live. Pray. Love – by – Moses

Prayer and hospital go hand in hand. Or maybe it’s prayer and life. I remember a saying: “as long as there are tests, there will be prayers in public schools”. In the end, everybody prays, every blade of grass has its song, says Rabbi Nachman, and this is so much stronger in the hospital. People ask for prayers for healing, though we know that not everybody can be fully healed in the physical, visible sense. I am often asked what is prayer good for, if G-d doesn’t answer: “S/he is a good person; why the suffering? Why is G-d doing this to him / her / me?” I am asked if we can expect miracles, because we believe, don’t we? And there used to be miracles, so why not now? And I want to say, “yes” but instead to sit quietly, maybe nod, constantly aware that what we don’t know is so much greater than what we do know, and how baffling it is to stand at the edge.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchanan, opens with Moses’ prayer and his appeal to go into the Land. On one hand we can read it as history: Moses prayed, great. On the other, it is Moses praying!! Even in his prayer, he remains our teacher. If we think about it, it’s a little crazy that Moses, the closest person to G-d, even stops and prays. Does Moses not trust G-d to know what he wants without him having to say it? Does G-d not know what Moses wants or needs? What is prayer and how does prayer work? And if G-d does know, how can the words of a human “change” His mind??
The Maharal (1512-1609) says that this kind of thinking is erroneous and that what prayer comes to do is complete the human being where there is a miss. What makes humans human is their power of speech. Therefore the human needs to create a vessel, with this power of speech, for Hashem to pour into it His great abundance. Having a request is an indication of a lack, for perfect beings don’t need to ask for anything. But humans are in desperate need for G-d’s gifts. Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook (the son of; 1891-1982) says that prayer is about making a change within us, not within G-d. In some writings it’s considered a ladder, climbing up, closer but never quite, face to face, eye to eye, with the Divine.
The Kabbalists say that that the word “va’etchanan” equals in its numerical value 515 which is the number of Moses’ prayers. Had he added one more, he would have been granted his request, so – he didn’t. Deep down he knew that it’s better for everybody is he does not go into the Land. At the end of the day (and even though it’s the core value of the Book of Deuteronomy!), the one who is teaching it, will not be the one doing it. More than “a place” it’s about a relationship.
King David much later will say ואני תפילה “va’ani tefilla”, I am prayer. Prayer in it’s ultimate form is not something we “do”; it’s something we are. The word “va’etchanan” which means beseeching, imploring is also equals to the word shira, long, continues song, maybe as a way to remind us that prayer’s goal is not ‘to get stuff”, but to not be alone where we are already.
This is also the same Torah portion when Moses says the famous שמע ישראל… “Shma Yisrael”, Hear, oh Israel, you people, listen, and not “us”, as if he’s already on the outside, waving goodbye. This is Moses’ tragedy: he’s born “outside” and dies “outside”. This is also Moses’ greatness: being on the “outside” does not mean one is not a part of. This is who we are too: Moses is amazing. The leader after him is going to be a little “paler”. The midrash tells us that Moses is like the sun while Joshua is like the moon and yet. We have both and more, among our People and within ourselves.
Galgalatz (one of Israel’s most listened to radio stations) plays love songs today. It’s Tu Be’Av, often mistranslated for brevity as “Jewish Valentine Day”, the day when the unmarried go out to the field to choose and be chosen. Love, especially in this week’s Torah portion, is a choice. The Torah instructs us: ואהבת… “and you shall love”… Is that a simple future tense, telling us how things will be, that we will love? Or is it a commandment? And how is it possible to command someone to love?
For Rambam, love of G-d is a result of knowledge, which is why it comes right after the Shma – שמע – “hear oh Israel, Hashem our G-d, Hashem is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Knowing G-d’s Oneness and totality is the key to the love. If not, we’ll love one side and not the other, while that “other” stands and threatens other parts. The more we know, the more we’ll love. This is crazy, considering modern sentiments, but the Torah comes again and again to remind us: it’s all there, in the oneness. Open your shutters and let the light in; choose life, choose love.
Shabbat Shalom.

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