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Jewish Journal

Gift of unanswered prayers

Parshat Beha'alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)


by Rabbi Dov Fischer

June 12, 2008 | 2:33 pm

Not many people among Irvine's pedestrians and shoppers wear yarmulkes -- yet.

The city's Orthodox Jewish community indeed has expanded in recent years to four Orthodox congregations -- including our own Young Israel, two Chabad congregations, and a fourth where I previously served -- as well as an eruv (a wire boundary that allows Jews to perform tasks in public on Shabbat that would be otherwise forbidden) and a forthcoming mikvah (ritual bath). Even so, not many of us wear yarmulkes outdoors. Therefore, wherever I meander, people assume that I am a rabbi -- a pretty good guess.

The thing about wearing a yarmulke is that you not only become the involuntary emissary of the Jewish people (as, for example, when someone at the supermarket asks: "Excuse me, are you a rabbi -- and, if so, do you know where I can find borscht?"). More curiously, you become a prize candidate to be converted. It seems there are "extra points" to be garnered in certain circles for "witnessing the Good News" to a guy with a kippah. Recently, while sipping at a Coffee Bean -- if only they sold sandwiches there! -- two women approached and asked whether I was open to accept their messiah into my heart. I demurred politely, but they continued: "Don't you see that you never can get forgiveness from God without a temple sacrifice? Prayer is not enough. God does not forgive unless there is blood, a sacrifice at the temple. And that is why He sent his only...."

Which brought that discussion and this week's parsha analysis to five words that Moshe rabbeinu (Moses our teacher) cried out to the Master of the World after Miriam was smitten with biblical leprosy for speaking lashon hara (disapproving speech) about her brother. Miriam had initiated a brief discussion with her other brother, Aaron, concerning Moshe's relationship with Tziporah, the woman he had married (Numbers 12:1-3). And then suddenly -- not even allowing time for them to purify themselves properly before appearing in the Divine presence -- Hashem came down among them, explaining Moshe's unique role as His prophet and as His ever-ready servant (Numbers 12:4-6). "How dare you speak that way about My servant, about [My] Moshe?" And Miriam was smitten with a biblical leprosy that compelled her into a humiliating exile outside the Jewish encampment.

The Torah records that Moshe wasted no time, crying out: "Kel, na, R'fa na lah" (God, please, heal her, please) (Numbers 12:13). In only five words, Moshe pleaded with earth-shaking force for Miriam. There was no sacrifice of animal. No blood. Just the exhorting lips of Moshe, crying out to the Creator: "God, please, heal her, please." And she was healed.

Prayer is a powerful vehicle. Our lips substitute for bulls (Hosea 14:3). Long before the first Tabernacle was erected, Cain had pleaded to Hashem in prayer that the punishment for murdering his brother was too heavy to bear -- and the Creator responded by placing a mark on him to protect him (Genesis 4:13-15). Abraham prayed for the safety of the righteous who might be residing in Sodom and Gomorrah -- and Hashem was moved to change His plan (Genesis 18:23-33). Avraham awoke early in the morning, praying in his usual place, on the day he set forth with Yitzchak for Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:3). Yitzchak was conversing with Hashem -- praying -- in his field during late afternoon on the day he met Rivkah (Genesis 24:63). Yaakov prayed at night (Genesis 28). When Hashem spoke of wiping a nation out of history, Moshe prayed and pleaded for their forgiveness until He said: "I have forgiven, consonant with your words." (Numbers 14: 20; cf. Exodus 32:14).

Prayer is powerful. Joshua prayed, and the world's sun stood still on a Friday afternoon so that Israel's enemies would be dispatched before the Shabbat (Joshua 10:12-14). Samson, blind and bound as a spectacle for the Philistines, prayed and was answered (Judges 16:28-29). As evidenced throughout so much of Psalms, David prayed -- as he stood before Goliath, later as he fled from Saul's pursuers and into Avimelech's kingdom, and ultimately as King of Israel.

Prayer is not only powerful for biblical figures. Through 2,000 years of exile, tens of millions of the meekest and least historically prominent individuals in the Jewish nation prayed three times daily for a return to Jerusalem and the restoration of Zion. They prayed for centuries despite no possible rational basis to believe their prayers would be answered. But prayer is not only about empirical data, and -- paradoxically -- faith tests one's faith. Prayer is about submitting oneself to a greater Power, a more omnipresent and omniscient Authority. Prayer tests our resolve: Can we continue praying long after our prayers ostensibly have not yet been answered? Prayer forces us to search within and to judge ourselves: Can we distinguish between the substantive needs that justify our passions and the vanities that are passing fancies? Prayer directs our hearts and teaches us humbly to acknowledge our own limits.

Prayer teaches us to harmonize with the creation, to hear His response. When prayer is not answered, sometimes -- as the country singer Garth Brooks poetically has observed -- one reflects, stunned, and suddenly realizes that some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. Sometimes, it takes 2,000 years and millions of tear-soaked prayers to receive the beginnings of an answer. And sometimes it only takes five words.

Or, as I explained respectfully to those two lovely women, sometimes the only sacrifice God demands of us is not someone else's tragic death, but the service of our hearts, the passion of our lips and the unabashed exposing of our souls.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at two Southern California law schools and is spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at www.ravfischer.blogspot.com, and he can be contacted via his Web site at www.ravfischer.com.

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