Loosen Your Grip*

by Eliezer Segal

Deuteronomy 3

23 And I besought the Lord at that time, saying, 24O Lord God, thou hast begun to shew thy servant thy greatness, and thy mighty hand: for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to thy works, and according to thy might? 25I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. 26 But the Lord was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the Lord said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter.

A friend of mine once responded to to his kids’ impatient nagging (I assure you that this is not about my own kids or grandkids) by insisting that they submit their requests in a more respectful form, quietly and with appropriate “please”s and “thank you”s. When the kids had calmed down and offered their newly drafted, courteous version of the request, the father answered with a simple “No.”

For good measure, my friend (who is also a distinguished Jewish scholar and educator) added: “And now you can begin to understand how prayer works.”

This sometimes painful lesson—that even the most sincere prayers uttered by the most righteous of worshippers provide no guarantee of success—is one that Moshe Rabbeinu had great difficulty in learning at the beginning of this week’s Parashah.

The Torah’s account of Moshe’s conversations with the Almighty here served as a catalyst for our sages to explore some profound and challenging questions about the the purposes of prayer in our spiritual lives.

I would like to share with you today the following intriguing passage from the MIdrash Sifré to D’varim in which Moshe gives a detailed account of the reasons that contributed to his frustration at God’s refusal to grant his prayer to enter the land of Israel.

According to this midrash, Moshe began the negotiations by recalling how he had prayed for the Israelites when God threatened to wipe them out for worshipping the golden calf. Moshe describes that event as follows:

Sifré Deut.:

{Moses to God:}

You gave me an opportunity to stand and pray before you on behalf of your children at the time that they acted improperly in the episode of the golden calf; as it says {when he recalls the episode in next week’s parashah: God said:} “Loosen your grip on me, that I may destroy them” (הרף ממני ואשמידם).

{When God said “Loosen your grip on me”—did this imply that} Moses was literally clutching at the Holy One?!

{Of course not!} Rather, this is what he was saying to him: Master of the universe, you were giving me an opportunity to stand and pray before you on behalf of your children. So I stood and prayed for them, and you listened to my prayer and forgave their sin. Therefore I now assumed that I was uniting with them in the prayer {asking that I be allowed into the Promised Land}— but it turned out that they were not praying on my behalf.

For should this not have been a logical certainty (קל החומר)? If {when I was praying that you pardon the people for the golden calf} you granted the appeal of an individual on behalf of the many—was it not obvious that you would have acquiesced all the more so to the prayers of the many that were being offered on my behalf?

In this attempt to reconstruct the reasoning of God and of Moshe,, we can discern how our sages were grappling with the essence of prayer. What is its function or purpose? Are human words really able to influence an all-knowing and perfect God, or is it directed principally at the worshipper, as God’s way of making us reflect more intensely on our values and priorities [as suggested by the Hebrew word להתפלל which translates literally as “to judge oneself”]?

I understand that this midrash is depicting Moshe as torn between different approaches to the question. His prior successes as a negotiator with the Almighty had instilled in him a confidence that he had perfected the formula for bending God’s will to achieve his objectives. If that was true, then the present challenge should have been a slam-dunk.

And he does the math for us: In the previous case he had been working at a severe disadvantage, standing as a solitary individual while pleading the cause an entire nation—and yet his prayers had proven powerful enough to save them all from destruction! This time, on the other hand, it was a simple matter of submitting an almost trivial-looking request on behalf of a single person, himself. All he was seeking was a slight change in the scheduling of his departure from this world—a request in which he could presumably count on the support of his entire community.

The midrash points out at least one grave flaw in that calculation. In his assurance that the entire nation supported him in his demands, Moshe had not taken the trouble to consult with them. Like one of those hapless self-styled revolutionaries in a film comedy, he boldly stormed the fortress confident that his loyal masses were right behind—only to discover too late that he was standing alone and vulnerable.

Evidently, we were meant to learn from this that the power that Judaism ascribes to congregational prayer is not just a technical matter of counting bodies for a minyan, but it should involve the creation of a meaningful consensus among diverse segments of the community. The midrash had the audacity to suggest that even our great leader and liberator Moshe was deficient in that respect and that he should have made a greater effort to explain his position and inspire the populace with sympathy and enthusiasm for his cause. This is a lesson that is of crucial relevance for all community leaders, politicians, clergy (—and maybe even for Gabba’im...).

At any rate, based on his successful track record and his understanding of the nature of prayer as a mechanism for cancelling divine decrees, we can readily appreciate Moshe’s stubborn confidence in his expected success—his metaphoric grasping at God’s lapels—and the devastating disappointment he felt when his appeal was summarily rejected—and he had to be forcibly shoved away (again: metaphorically) from the divine presence.

But when the midrashic Moshe recounts this story in our parashah as he approaches the end of his life, he reveals a more mature understanding of what really happened when he had prayed for the people’s lives at Mount Sinai.

He had come to realize that God’s true intention had never really been to destroy the Israelites. Rather, that was a posture designed to put a scare into Moshe, so that the prophet would be impelled to react by reasserting his devotion to his flock and urgently praying for their forgiveness. And when it came to giving his all for his people, Moshe did not disappoint. He stubbornly refused to back down until the Almighty relented—or, at least, appeared to be relenting.

In one of those many stories in which credulous ḥasidim vie to outdo each other in extolling the amazing powers of their wonder-rabbis, one haṣid boasts to another: “I come from Yechupetz, and there we are familiar with miracles: Our rabbi asks God to do something and God immediately obeys. Now that is a miracle!”

To this the other ḥasid retorts: Well, I come from {Toronto / Edmonton / insert appropriate locality}— and there things are different: when God asks our rabbi to do something and our rabbi obeys, then we consider that a miracle!”

It seems to me that a similar distinction underlies our midrashic version of Moshe’s prayers. He had to learn the hard way that prayer—even when we are begging for something that we desperately want—should not necessarily be perceived as a way of influencing the Almighty. That approach, beloved as it is to the tellers of tales about righteous miracle-workers, is often based on questionable assumptions about the power and wisdom of mortal humans, and the capricious whims of the Master of the Universe.

I prefer not to presume that I know better than God or that I have a full grasp of reality that allows me to tell him what he should be doing for me. While requests for divine mercy might have their place in our spiritual lives, we might make better use of the time by doing our own reality checks.

The occasions that bring us to pray—whether they are halakhic obligations, threatening calamities, or appreciation of our good fortune—can be regarded as opportunities to reflect on our values in the light of those circumstances; giving serious thought to what objectives are worth praying for. What should be our response to the circumstances, whether from the perspective of Torah, of our spiritual growth, or of basic human morality? Should we be accepting them with gratitude or understanding? Should we be moved to indignation or disturbed by the unfairness of the world? Is the situation one that lies within our own power to improve or to sanctify, or must we resign ourselves to passive approval or dissatisfaction?

When forced to come up with an appropriate response to his people’s imminent destruction, Moshe decided that a faithful leader should be ready to take the ultimate risk and argue against the Almighty himself—as God hoped he would do. This is, perhaps, the most valuable kind of prayer.

Even when our Father in Heaven responds to our requests with a “No”—as he did to Moshe—we and our world might ultimately be a little bit better—by virtue the fact that we did participate in prayer.

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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, August 1, 2015 .