When the Right Instincts Kick In
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Shavuot, Beha’alotecha is the Parsha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora. For Parshat Naso (this week in the Diaspora) please click here.
Miriam loved her little brother Moshe like a mother loves a child. She was the same Miriam who hid in the bulrushes all those years ago when baby Moshe was placed in the basket in Nile River. Her disparagement of her brother was made out of love and a concern that maybe he had gone off the deep end in some way, and that he was being excessive in his religious commitment as spiritual leader of the people. Nonetheless, she was punished with leprosy for having misunderstood who her brother really was, and slandering him to their brother, Aharon, in the process.
Seeing how his sister had been afflicted, Moshe cried out to Hashem with a five-word prayer (12:13): “אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ: ” – “G-d, please, heal, please, her.” Some commentaries understand that Moshe used this word “נא” in his prayer twice, because the word has a dual meaning. “נא” means “please,” and it also means “now.” It seems that this word expresses the emotional desperation of its utterer, and a need which can be fulfilled by the person being petitioned. At the same time, it lets the listener know that there’s a timely urgency to that plea. Moshe was beseeching Hashem to heal her immediately, so that she wouldn’t have to undergo the humiliation of being sequestered outside the camp. Hashem responded aptly that Miriam needed to undergo some level of penance in order to expiate her sin. This is why, although Hashem did heal her, the second “נא” request of healing her immediately could not be fulfilled.
Short but Sweet
Rashi asks an interesting question: Why was Moshe’s recorded prayer so short? Why did he only devote five words of entreaty for his beloved sister? Was it because he resented the lashon hara? No, not Moshe. As a matter of fact, the Alshich understands the double usage of the word “נא” as a way of expressing to Hashem: “I know that Miriam has offended both You and me through her slander. Let’s both You and I forgive Miriam for her trespass, one ‘נא’ for You, and one ‘נא’ for me.”
Rashi instead offers two answers as to what Moshe intended by such a short prayer: (1) There’s a time for prayer and a time for action. Miriam needs to be placed into isolation and only then can she heal. I will therefore shorten my prayer so that we can address Miriam’s remedy with the greatest immediacy. (2) I’m concerned that if I pray lengthily for Miriam, the people looking on will think I care more about my own sister than I do about them. They will feel estranged from me and will be demoralized. I cannot afford to spend more time on my sister than on my “flock.” I need to show them that they are no less important than my sister.
Prayer vs Action
We find a fascinating parallel between this story and a story that occurred back when the Jews were first leaving Egypt. Let’s recall that the Jews found themselves trapped, with the Egyptians pursuing them from the rear and the Red Sea blocking their passage from the front. Hashem said to Moshe (Ex. 14:15) “מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ” – “Why are you crying out to Me? Tell Bnei Israel to go!” Notice that the very same verb of “צעק” is used in both passages, both when Moshe was crying out to Hashem to save the trapped Jews, and when crying out to Hashem to save Miriam.
Rashi comments on the words in Shemos, “מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי” – “Why are you crying out?” with the following two explanations: (1) There’s a time for prayer and a time for action. The Jews need to act by proceeding forward into the Sea. You, Moshe, should therefore curtail your prayer and have them act. (2) If you pray lengthily for Bnei Israel, they will think that I’m only saving them because of your prayer, and not because I, as their loving G-d, actually care about them. That will make them feel estranged from Me and demoralized. I need to show them that they are important to Me, independent of your efforts on their behalf.
We see an uncanny similarity, both in the verses themselves, and in Rashi’s commentary. In both cases, we first learn a theological lesson about when prayer is to be used effectively. Only after you’ve exhausted all other intercessional efforts should you expend energy on lengthy prayer. But if there’s something proactive that you can do to alleviate the current plight, it’s not appropriate to take away time from that endeavor in order to pray. The second lesson is one of leadership, in that in both cases, the leader wished to provide assurances to his people that he loved them and cared for them.
Perhaps this is the reason why Moshe’s short prayer was recorded in the text in the first place. After all, the Torah did not record Moshe’s plea to Hashem at the Sea; it simply states that Hashem said to him, “Why are you crying out?” Why were the words of Moshe’s plea recorded here, when he was praying for Miriam? Consider what Miriam’s complaint against Moshe was in the first place: Moshe is acting as if he’s too holy and exalted for this terrestrial plane. As our Sages explain, Miriam felt that Moshe was incorrect in divorcing his wife and living a life of celibacy. “We, too, have been spoken to by G-d, and we’ve been able to maintain our prosaic marriages and lives. Why should Moshe feel he’s any different?” Hashem responded that Moshe was, indeed, on a completely different plane of holiness and Divine communication from all other prophets. He had transcended his humanity and was now much closer to level of the Divine than any other human being.
Close to the Divine
As a way of demonstrating this, Hashem chose to record Moshe’s very petition on behalf of his sister: See how his very attitude during his prayer demonstrates his newfound closeness to G-d. Previously, Moshe had to be instructed about when to pray and when to act. Previously, Hashem had to teach Moshe about how a leader needs to model his love and care for his flock. But look at Moshe now: He is so close to the Divine, in his fulfillment of imitatio Dei, in walking in G-d’s ways, that he intuitively and extemporaneously knew that he had to shorten his prayer. This act in itself demonstrates how different Moshe is from other human beings. He has fully internalized Divine behavior into the very fabric of his being.
Many of us remember the “Miracle on the Hudson” in 2009, when pilot Sully Sullenberger was able to successfully emergency land a plane on the Hudson River after striking a flock of birds and losing all engine power. At the time, one rabbi wrote that he was unimpressed by Sully’s heroic act because it was all done in a split second and no moral forethought was involved. Another rabbi responded with a scathing critique of the first rabbi, pointing out, correctly, that the years of training that Sully underwent to anticipate such an emergency demonstrates a moral courage that was so deeply embedded within the man, that it emerged spontaneously during that split second when it was needed. The same can be said about Moshe: he had so internalized the theological and moral lessons of Hashem and His ways, that even during an emotionally turbulent event of his sister falling ill, he was able to instinctively imitate Hashem.
The Cumulative Effect of Prayer
This is truly an admirable trait, and it is why we spend our entire lives engrossed in Torah study, prayer, and acts of kindness. We may not realize the cumulative effects that these behaviors have upon us, but rest assured that at those crucial moments in life, when we are called upon to act instinctively without the opportunity for premeditation, our Torah values and past behaviors kick in and cause us to act with virtue and in keeping with our tradition.
May we always rise to the call should it ever be needed, and may our Judaism be so deeply embedded so that it become second nature for us to walk in Hashem’s ways. May that commitment to the Torah lifestyle bring us ever closer to Redemption, bb”a.