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Parashat Hashavua Va'etchanan 2014 / 5774 - Unanswered Prayers?

07.08.2014 by

A theme that has been much discussed over the last weeks, especially in traditional, Orthodox circles here in Israel, is the question, What happens to all our apparently unanswered prayers? This discussion, which, of course, is not new, began with the announcement that the three kidnapped boys had, in fact, been murdered. People wondered how the millions of heartfelt expressions of hope for the boys' safe return could have been for nought, wasted, as it were, especially given the fact that the victims had, in fact, been murdered so early on, while so many still hoped and prayed that they were alive and would be found. The question continued to be asked during the war, as the horrible price we paid in fallen soldiers went up and up. So many had been praying so hard for their welfare; what happened to those prayers?

Here is Israel, a very popular answer, in terms of the fate of the kidnapped boys, as well as the loss of our soldiers, is that their kidnapping and murder, which apparently began the spiral of events which led to the ground war in Gaza, also led to the discovery of the Hamas tunnels, and their destruction. Had this not happened, Hamas' plans for a mega terror attack, apparently actually scheduled for Rosh Hashana, which could easily have led to the death and capture of thousands of Israelis, could have been actualized. It was the fate of the boys, and the way the search for them and their murderers played out, and the subsequent nature of the ground war in Gaza, that saved Israel from this truly horrible fate. This cause and effect connection between the boys' deaths and Israel being saved from a major disaster explains, for many, the theological difficulty in accepting the horrible fate of these three outstanding young men, as well as the "failure" of all the prayers said on their behalf: they died, in the way they did, to save many, many more Jews.

Although in this case the connection between the kidnapping and the discovery of the tunnels is actually very real, and is not some sort of metaphysical one, some still feel somewhat uncomfortable with this equation, and wonder if, to put it simply, God could not have found a kinder, gentler way to help us out and find those tunnels.  

This week's parsha, Va'etchanan, begins with an unanswered prayer: Moshe's request that he be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Israel. Moshe reminds the Jewish people that although he beseeched God to enter and see the promised land, God, because of the Jews, refused him, though He did relent somewhat, and let him view the land from a distance, before dying (Devarim, 3;23-28). 

The commentaries have a few opinions as to why exactly God refused Moshe's request, and how it was the fault of the Jewish people. Rashi and the Ramban see the refusal as simply being a case of God sticking to His guns and leaving His original punishment in place - a sort of moral/legal explanation - and understand the  Israelites getting the blame as a reference to their earlier complaints about the lack of water, which got Moshe to overreact, hit the rock and speak harshly to them, which is why he was  denied entry in the first place. The Chizkuni sees it as a kind of fairness issue: How would it look if Moshe only prayed for himself, and succeeded in getting into the land, while the entire generation that left Egypt died in the desert? What sort of leadership would that be?  

In all of these approaches, Moshe is denied entry to Israel because of the earlier sin of hitting the rock and speaking harshly to the people. Moshe, with his prayers, tried to convince God to change His mind about the punishment, and God refused, either simply because the sin still deserved to be punished, and be seen to be punished,  or because, at this late stage, Moshe can not receive special treatment; if the generation of the desert must die before reaching the promised land for their sins, so must Moshe, for his.

The Sforno takes a very different approach. He says that Moshe was not simply interested in seeing the land before he died (perhaps he rejects that understanding because God actually does grant him that wish; he does see it from afar, which would make reading the words "and God was angry at me because of you, and would not hear me" difficult. In addition, a request to just go and see the land seems pretty puny, when compared to what the Sforno is about to say about what Moshe really wanted). Rather, Moshe desired to enter the land in order to conquer it fully, permanently, by totally destroying the Canaanite nations, and then blessing the Israelites so that they would stay there forever (how exactly he would do this I don't know, but the exodus from Egypt is a pretty good indication of his abilities to dramatically change history). God refuses this request, because that would go against the divine plan: to punish the Israelites, in the future, when they sin, by exiling them from the land.

In other words, Moshe desired to go to Israel and create a military and political reality which would change history. He wanted to settle the people in the land in a way that would be irreversible, untouchable by the viccisitudes of their behavior, and the geopolitical realities around them. He wanted to bring them into Israel forever, so they would transcend the normal ebb and flow of historical processes as we know them, which God had already promised that Israel would be subject to.

According to the Sforno, Moshe's prayers were denied not simply because God had other plans, but because God's plans were more realistic than Moshe's, more correct. Moshe wanted to somehow make it possible for the people of Israel to live unaffected by the way things are supposed to work, namely, that nations sin, become corrupt and decadent, and are then easily defeated by the other nations around them. God wanted the people of Israel to live, as a nation, in line with the way things really are - you sin, you lose sight of your national identity, character, and values, and you suffer the consequences. He could not allow Moshe to get what he prayed for: to conquer the land and settle it in a way which would take Israel out of the normal influence of historical process.

What this means is that we, in our prayers, sometimes tend to wish for the impossible. We pray for things which are beyond the realm of science, natural law, and the way things are meant to happen in the world. God, the world's creator, is apparently more committed than we are to the world as he created it, as it really is. Just as physics is always the way the physical world works, and biology controls our bodily functions, history has laws as well, and God wants us to live within them, to be subject to them. That is the law, and the logic, of sin, exile and redemption, and God was not about to allow Moshe to circumvent that law. 

Hamas is a vicious,  murderous organization. That is the reality. They are that way as a result of choices made by many people over a period of time. It is that very viciousness that will lead to their demise, and it was that viciousness, as expressed in their cruel murder of Eyal, Gil-Ad, and Naftali, that led, that had to lead, to the destruction of their truly frightening attack tunnels. Although we were right to pray for the boys' safety, to hope and wish for a better world, .God was right to allow history to play itself out, to allow human beings to make their choices and be effected by them. That is how the death of these three wonderful boys, as well as of the heroes who gave their lives in Gaza so that we may live, changed history, and have made it possible for the Jewish people to continue to live, as long as we deserve to, in our land. Based on the amazing expressions of unity, love, sacrifice, and morality - yes, we are the most moral army in the world - we have reason to believe that that will be a very long time indeed.   

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

We sometimes pray for the impossible, for things which are beyond the realm of science, natural law, and the way things really are in the worldRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Va'etchanan


Moshe begins the parsha of V'etchanan - "And I Begged" - with the story of how he beseeched God, unsuccessfully, to forgive him for the sin of hitting, rather than talking to, the rock, and allow him to enter the Land of Israel. He then reminds the people of the importance of keeping the laws of the Torah, stressing that it is the widsdom of the Torah's laws which communicates the particuar greatness of the Jewish people to the rest of the world. He reviews the giving of the Ten Commandments,  and repeats them here, with some slight textual differences. Moshe also gives the people the Shema - the central Jewish text of faith, commitment, and Torah study, beginning "Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one." Moshe reminds the people of the importance of remembering the Exodus from Egypt, and of not intermarrying with the Canaanite nations once they arrive in Israel.


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