Yom Rivii, 18 Elul 5779
Wednesday, 18 September 2019
Parashat Beha'alotecha 2013

Parashat Beha'alotecha
Rabbi Harry Jacobi

24 May 2013

‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married... And the anger of the Eternal One was kindled against them... And Miriam was leprous, as white as snow... So Moses cried to the Eternal One: “Heal her, O God, I beseech You.” So Miriam was shut up outside the camp seven days.’ (Numbers 12)

This biblical example of prejudice is commented upon appropriately in our Siddur Lev Chadash. It raises many questions such as: Who was the Cushite woman? What exactly was their complaint against Moses? Why was Miriam punished and not Aaron? As we might expect, there are many intriguing answers suggested; but I want to comment on another more relevant aspect: Prayer.

Moses’ prayer: “El na, refa na lah - Heal her now, O God, I beseech You” is the shortest prayer in the Bible. It was a spontaneous cri de coeur and apparently immediately heard and answered.

A Talmudic story comments upon this: It happened once that a disciple was reading the Amidah in the presence of Rabbi Eliezer, and curtailed his benediction. The other disciples said: “Master, do you see how he has shortened the benedictions?” But Rabbi Eliezer said: “He has not been shorter than Moses, who said, ‘Heal her now God, I beseech You.’”·

Another disciple prolonged his benedictions and the disciples said: “Master did you notice how he prolonged the benedictions?” But Rabbi Eliezer said: “ He did not prolong more than Moses, who said, ‘I fell down in prayer before the Eternal One for forty days and forty nights.’ (Deut. 9:18) For Moses said to himself, there is a time to shorten and a time to prolong.” The same Rabbi Eliezer makes a similar comment on another biblical passage: “And the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry unto Me?’” Exodus 14:15) Rabbi Eliezer said: “God said to Moses, My children are in trouble, the sea shuts them off on one side, the enemy, the Egyptians, pursues them on the other, and you stand and make long prayers. And God said: ‘There is a time to lengthen prayer and there is a time to shorten it.’” Rabbi Eliezer teaches our traditional attitude to prayer: It matters little whether it is short or long, what matters is that it should come from the heart. (Deut. 11:13)·

Maimonides’ Laws of Prayer, in his monumental authoritative code Mishneh Torah, or Yad Hachazakah, comprise fifteen chapters. They begin: ‘It is a positive commandment to pray every day, as it says, “You shall serve the Eternal One your God”. Our tradition teaches us that service of God is prayer, as it says “You shall serve God with all your heart.” Our sages ask: “What is this service of the heart? It is prayer.” Even women and slaves are obliged to pray.’ The bracketing of women and slaves, so often found in the ancient codes, is for us incomprehensible and reprehensible.·

The essential requirement for our prayers is that they should be said with kavannah - complete sincerity, devotion, and concentration. Maimonides rules: ‘Prayer without kavannah is no prayer. It means that one should clear all thoughts from the mind, and regard him or herself as if standing before God’s presence - the Shekhinah.’ In this respect, we can proudly and justifiably claim to pray according to halakhic requirements and traditions. Rabbi Simeon teaches: “Be careful to read the Shema and say the Amidah and when you pray, regard not your prayer as a fixed, mechanical task, but as an appeal for mercy and grace before God” (Avot 2:18). We rightly include the Shema and Amidah in every service and take good care not to say our prayers as if they were a fixed, mechanical task. In our preference for, or even insistence upon, good decorum to enable us to pray with kavannah, we follow halakhic requirements and traditions to a higher degree than many synagogues who insist on calling themselves orthodox and frown upon us. This is what Maimonides teaches: “Synagogues and study houses should be treated with honour. In synagogues and study houses, one does not act frivolously, idly, such as chatting, sarcasm or private conversations. And one does not eat in them, nor drink, nor beautify oneself, nor walk in them...But the sages and their pupils may eat and drink in them if pressed. And one does not do business in them unless it is business connected with a mitzvah, for example: a stall collecting for charity or for the ransom of captives” (Hilchot Tefillah 11).

We also follow rabbinic tradition in another aspect - by adding new prayers. Rabbi Aha said: “A new prayer should be said every day.” Many rabbis used to add new spontaneous prayers to the daily liturgy, it was recommended, applauded and encouraged. To quote just one example, Rabbi Pedat prayed: “May it be Your will, Eternal One, our God and God of our ancestors, that no hatred against any person come into our hearts and hatred against us come into their hearts. May none be jealous of us, and may we not be jealous of any. And may Your law be our labour all the days of our lives, and may our words be as supplications before You” (Jerusalem Talmud Berachot 4).·

Even in the matter of praying in the vernacular, we follow traditional practice. The Rabbis taught: “It is neither the length nor the brevity nor the language of prayer that matters, but the sincerity.” Rabbi Judah preferred the vernacular Aramaic for all personal petitions as well as the Aramaic Kaddish. Private prayers in Aramaic were included in the early siddurim. The great Sa-adia Gaon, in the tenth century, included Arabic prayers in his siddur.·

Our liturgy, said Hermann Cohen, is one of the greatest products of the Jewish genius; and a non-Jew, G.B. Biddle, paid us this compliment: “Certainly the Jew has cause to thank God, and the fathers before him, for the noblest liturgy in the annals of faith on show.”·

Let me end with a prayer that was new, creative, and relevant nearly 2000 years ago, and which remains amazingly apposite even today. Rabbi Elazar, on concluding his prayers, used to say: May it be Your will, Eternal One our God, to cause love and brotherhood, peace and comradeship to abide in our lot, to enlarge our borders with disciples, to prosper our goal with a happy end and with hope, to fortify us in Your world with good companionship and with the good impulse, so that we may rise day by day and feel the longing of our hearts to revere Your name, and may the satisfaction of our souls come before You for good” (Berachot 16b).·