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Parashat Va’Etchanan 5775 — 07/29/2015

Parashat Va’Etchanan 5775 — 07/29/2015

Devarim 3:23 – 7:11

The numerical value of “Va’Etchana” is 515.  It is related that Moshe Rabbeinu prayed 515 prayers before Gd told him “Enough, don’t speak of this any more,” for had he prayed one more prayer, it would have been effective in cancelling the decree.  There are a number of explanations of the significance of 515, but I haven’t been able to locate them.  However, 515 used to be the area code for Fairfield!

O Gd, Lord!  You have begun to show me Your greatness and Your display of power.  What force is there in heaven or earth who can perform deeds and mighty acts as You do?  Please let me cross [the Jordan]. (3:24-25)

Moshe Rabbeinu began his prayer to Gd with praises, lauding Gd’s might acts and kindness both to Moshe and to Israel.  Only then does he present his request.  We take the same approach in the Amidah.  The first the b’rachot are praise of Gd; only then do we present our petitions.  What is the significance of this structure?  Do we need to “butter up” Gd to get what we want?

Rav Kook explained that the requirement to precede prayer with Gd’s praise relates to the very foundations of prayer and its efficacy.  Following this format prevents us from grossly misinterpreting the mechanics of prayer.

   One might think that prayer is some sort of magic loophole built into the framework of Divine Providence, and that by pleading our case it is possible to cause Gd to change His mind.  The notion that we have the power to influence Gd’s Will, however, is untenable.

   Rather, we should view prayer as a wonderful gift which enables us to refine ourselves.  Prayer does not effect a change in Gd; prayer effects a change in us.  It is only by virtue of the soul’s moral and spiritual elevation that prayer has the power to annul harsh decrees. … Then, as a result of our transformation, the decree is no longer relevant.

There are a couple of problems with the idea that we can “force” Gd, as it were, to change His Mind.  First of course, is that Gd is infinite and unchanging.  Gd sees everything, past, present and future, and decides what is best for all concerned.  “Change” implies something temporal, and Gd is beyond the temporal.  But even if that were not a problem, the question is, why would we want to have Gd change what he has decreed for us.  Certainly, not everything that happens in our life is pleasant – some of it is quite challenging in fact.  But as we have just stated, we believe that everything Gd does is for our benefit.  Sometimes our greatest growth comes from our most painful experiences.  If this is the case, we generally will accept the pain to achieve the gain – we wouldn’t ask Gd to change anything!

If this is the case, why do we bother praying at all?  Why not simply accept what Gd has given us and be happy with it.  That’s what we’re going to wind up doing anyway!!  Rav Kook gives one reason which impinges on the issue of changing Gd’s decrees.  The point of prayer is not to change Gd’s Mind, but to change our spiritual status.  When we do this, in Rav Kook’s words, the decree is no longer relevant.  To understand this, we need to understand the purpose of Gd’s decrees.  The ultimate purpose of everything Gd does for us, or to us, is that we grow spiritually.  If we engage in behaviors that cause us to move in the opposite direction, Gd applies a corrective, to bring us up short and make us take a hard look at ourselves and our lives.  On the other hand, if we engage in behaviors that are spiritually uplifting, no corrective is needed.  As Rav Kook puts it, the decree is no longer relevant – the corrective is no longer needed.

There is another aspect to prayer however, that has little to do with averting harsh decrees.  Prayer is the way we connect with Gd.  As such, it provides a pipeline by which Gd can shower His goodness upon us.  Our Sages express this in two ways.  First, commenting on the verse (Gen 2:5-6) All the wild shrubs did not yet exist on the earth, and all the wild plants had not yet sprouted.  Thhis was because Gd had not brought rain on the earth, and there was no man to work the ground. (tr. R. Aryeh Kaplan)  Now we know full well that plenty of plants grow perfectly well without any human intervention.  That’s why farmers pour thousands of tons of herbicides on their fields every year.  The Rabbis explain that while the vegetation was ready to grow (they describe it as being just level with the surface of the earth, ready to break through), it required human beings to recognize the need for Gd’s input (rain) and that prayer was the way to achieve that input.

The Rabbis ask, “Why were the Patriarchs infertile?”  They answer “Because Gd desires the prayers of the righteous.”  Not only do we wish to create a channel of communication with Gd, but apparently Gd desires to have an open channel of communication with us as well.  Gd created the world with boundaries, but He desires to infuse the boundaries with His quality of unboundedness, and in order to do that it requires free-willed human beings who choose to ascend spiritually and attach themselves to Gd (which requires self-discipline) and to detach themselves, to the extent possible for humans, from material pleasures.  The process of attaching oneself to Gd is prayer, and it requires praying from the very depths of one’s existence.  Sometimes, the experience of need or loss is what is required to trigger true, heartfelt prayer.  I know that from my own recent experience of losing a loved one, and the Patriarchs, who of course were at an incomparably higher level, apparently needed, or used, the experience of an unfulfilled need to improve their prayer day by day.

The reality of the situation is that we, and everything else in creation, are always connected to Gd.  We never have been, nor will we ever be, separate from Gd.  We simply need to awaken to this reality.  Prayer is our way of waking ourselves up.  In this case, ignorance is not bliss!

Some of the ideas in this piece come from the wonderful 5-minutes-a-day book Praying With Fire by R. Heshy Kleinman, available from Artscroll or from Amazon.  I do my best to read the daily selection before davvening, and have been doing so for almost 10 years now.  It’s made all the difference in the world.

Pirke Avot, Chapter 3

Mishnah 3

From where can it be derived that even one who sits and is occupied with Torah, the Holy One, blessed is He, establishes for that person a reward?  As it is written: Let him sit alone, and be silent, for he has received what is his.

I have often speculated that “being occupied with Torah” does not mean only academic study of the books of Torah, but actually becoming Torah, that is, so identifying oneself with Torah’s wisdom that our minds become unbounded.  Certainly, actual study of Torah – that is, the intellectual discipline of delving into finer and finer levels of the text – can be a path to transcending the intellect and becoming one with Torah.  Prayer is another path – perhaps a more emotional path, dealing as it often does with our love of Gd and Gd’s love of us.  Another path is meditation, and I think that is what the verse that the Mishnah quotes is describing.  In meditation one sits alone and allows mental activity to settle down.  We experience the deep silence that is at the root of all activity, the state of unboundedness which knows no change or activity.  We awaken to who we actually are, beyond all the particularities of our personality, our body, our thoughts.  With repeated practice, the habit of experiencing this silence becomes so ingrained in our mind that we can maintain unbounded awareness along with awareness of boundaries.  This level of awareness is so expanded and so joyful, that it is truly its own reward.  I have translated the last phrase as he has received what is his to emphasize the fact that this unbounded awareness is what we truly are.  Our reward is that we get to reclaim our own essential nature!