Parasha Ve-et-cha-nan

The Answer to our Prayers

Yesterday morning our adult study group read the first chapter of the Book of Lamentations – the scroll that we read on Tisha B’Av. The first chapter describes the destruction of Jerusalem and the demoralization of its inhabitants in 586 BCE. Jerusalem’s enemies wreak death and destruction and  Jerusalem’s so-called friends and allies gloat and offer no help. The final verse of this chapter is a prayer. It implores G-d to deal with Israel’s enemies as G-d has dealt with Israel for her transgressions. This prayer asks G-d, pay back in kind our enemies and those who stood by while we suffered!
Susan Ganden, a member of our group, was troubled by this –“ Rabbi, she asked, is it proper for a Jew to pray for revenge?” Is it fitting that we should ask G-d to harm those who have harmed us? There is, in fact, a teaching about this in the Talmud.  One story describes how there were hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him much trouble. He prayed to G-d that they should die. His wife, Beruriah overheard him and confronted him. “How can you believe that such a prayer is justified?” she asked. “Pray not that the sinners cease to be, but that the sins cease to be. Once the sins cease, there will be no more wicked men!” Rabbi Meir listened to his wife and did pray for the hooligan who had besieged him, and they repented.  So no, we should not pray that someone who harmed us be harmed themselves. Rather, we should pray that they come to see the error of their ways, and repent, and therefore be no longer deserving of punishment.
There is also another category of prayer that is inappropriate to recite. This is called a “tefilah levatalah” – a prayer said in vain. The classic example of this is of a person who is approaching his town and sees smoke rising up from its midst. The person must not say, “G-d, I pray that it is not my home that is on fire.” The fact is, there is a fire in the town, and either your home is on fire or your home is not on fire. Your prayer cannot effect the situation if your home is already on fire. It is folly to ask G-d to undo something that has already happened!  Therefore, one should not utter this prayer at all.
What if something has already happened, but we don’t know it? At the end of June three teen-age boys — Eyal Yifrach, 19, Naftali Frankel, 16, and Gil-ad Shaar, 16 – were kidnapped by Hamas operatives on the West Bank.  For weeks their whereabouts were unknown. For weeks, people around the world prayed for their safe return. Their bodies were finally found in a shallow grave outside of Hebron. Forensic examination revealed that they had in fact been killed by their captors shortly after they were abducted. We all prayed for them on the assumption that they were still alive. We had no information otherwise. This then, was not a prayer in vain. It was a prayer that went unanswered”.
Rather than unanswered, should we not say instead that G-d hears our cries but sometimes says “no”? We have an example of that in this week’s Torah reading. Moses pleads to G-d that he be able to enter the Promised Land. He has given the last forty years to leading the Jewish people to just this goal. Now, he is to be denied entrance himself?  The midrash tells us that Moses enlisted the sun, the moon, the stars, as well as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to entreat G-d to allow him to enter the Land. G-d’s response? “Moses, do not speak to me of this anymore.”
Sometimes “no” is the answer to our prayers. “No” was the answer to the prayer of Moses. After telling Moses “no”, G-d tells him to ascend Mt. Pisgah and to look upon the land. He should look “West, North, South and East.” He may look over all of the Land, but he may not enter.
Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof, of blessed memory, notes that Moses is told to look “West, North, South and East,” not “North, South, East, and West” as we would say. In this particular word order, he says, there is a moral lesson.  It is a teaching on the perspective we ought to take when the answer to our prayers is “no”. Moses is first told to look toward the West. The West is where the sun sets. The setting of the sun represents the past, the yesterday that will never again be. Moses must look there first, and let go of the past without regret. Moses must say goodbye to his fervent hope that he might enter the Holy Land. He must no longer dwell on G-d’s refusal to grant his request. Moses looks North and South, but concludes by looking toward the East. The East represents the dawning of a new day, the beginning of the future. One name for “East” in Hebrew is “Kedmah”, which is related to the word for “going forward”.  Moses still has work to do. He must go forward. He must prepare the Jewish people for the leadership of Joshua. He must give them final instructions. He must bid them farewell by blessing them. G-d’s “no” closes off one path. Moses must continue to look forward to the new day.
So it is with us. Our most fervent prayers are at times answered with a “no”. We may not understand it. We may be angry. But to rail at life when it has cast our lines in unpleasant places is of little avail. We must face our setbacks in life, our “unanswered” prayers, with courage, with fortitude and with dignity. Like Moses we must turn toward the new dawn and go forward. Shabbat Shalom