Torah Insights for Shabbat
Parshat Ki Tissa 5758
March 14, 1998
Six short Weeks after the Jewish people reach the apex of their
history, receiving the Torah at Sinai, they descend to the depths of spiritual
degradation, fashioning a Golden Calf and indulging themselves in a wild orgy of
G-d is ready to annihilate the nation for their betrayal. But it is here that Moshe emerges as a great leader, issuing, on behalf of the Jewish people, a powerful plea for forgiveness.
Yet, one wonders: if G-d is immutable, how could Moshe "convince" Him to change His mind, as it were?
RAV YOSEF DOV SOLOVEITCHIK, zt"l, explains: It is the person praying, not G-d, who is transformed through prayer. In praying, man becomes a different person. He transcends his former self of sins and failures and stands before G-d a new being.
And how Moshe changed! The privileged prince of Egypt could have enjoyed a career tending the sheep of his father-in-law, Yisro, in the lush land of Midyan. But Moshe observed the suffering of his people, the Midrash records, and put aside the dignity of his position to help them with their backbreaking toil. When G-d saw Moshe, He saw a leader.
After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe eloquently prays for his people. "If you forgive them," he cries out, I am content to live. "But if not--please erase me from your Book." The Klei Yakar writes that Moshe's words describe a man who identifies completely with his people. He lives through them.
Moshe, who initially felt unsuited to represent the Jewish people before Pharaoh, becomes their fearless, articulate champion. His personality is transformed. His prayer is answered.
IN TALMUDIC TIMES, when agriculture was the main means of sustenance, rain was the lifeblood of the land. Small wonder that the Jew would turn heavenward and pray for rain. When there was a severe drought, the rabbinic court would proclaim a fast day, and the greatest sages would lead the people in prayer.
On one such occasion, the Talmud tells us, Rabbi Eliezer led the congregation in prayers, offering 24 blessings. But his prayers were not answered. Then Rabbi Akiva prayed, saying simply, "Our Father, our King, we have no king but You." And the rains came down.
A heavenly voice declared that it was not that one's prayer was greater than the other's, but that one transcended his own nature and the other did not.
Both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva were great scholars, and both were outstanding and devoted leaders. But Rabbi Akiva had had, in his personal history, a struggle to change his whole character. Turning against his upbringing and background, he had redefined his goals and waged a battle against his inclinations to recreate himself. He had gone from being an ignorant shepherd to a spiritual giant. His prayers and wishes were thus fulfilled.
PRAYER--ESPECIALLY SINCERE PRAYER on an everyday basis--runs contrary to human nature, for prayer reminds us of both our mortality and our helplessness. And prayer, especially communal prayer, is extremely difficult. It requires sacrifice and effort. It obligates us to leave the comforts of home, to pull away from the TV set, to leave our families and join the congregation in prayer.
But prayer offers us great opportunities to come closer to G-d through our membership in the community of Israel. Prayer helps us transcend human nature, allows us to leave behind human comforts and desires, asks us to sacrifice our egos--to change who we are--and cling to the eternal.
Rabbi Jonathan Horowitz
Rabbi Horowitz is rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Schenectady, New York.
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