Again, and again, and again. 515 times! Hashem decreed that Moshe wasn’t to enter Eretz Yisrael, but Moshe wasn’t deterred from continuously beseeching Hashem to be allowed to enter the land. Moshe, in the first words of our parsha, says, “Va’etchanan el Hashem—and I earnestly asked Hashem….” The numerical value of “va’etchanan” equals 515, teaching that Moshe prayed not once, not twice, not three times—but 515 times to Hashem. Moshe would have even continued had Hashem not demand that he cease praying—“speak to Me no more about this matter” (3:26). After a certain amount of time, wouldn’t Moshe on his own realize that the praying just aint working? It’s even more perplexing that Moshe seemingly wouldn’t have stopped praying had Hashem not instructed him so!
We know of praying as “tefillah.” So why does the Torah use the language of “chanan” to refer to Moshe’s tefillot to Hashem? Rashi explains that although righteous people (i.e., Moshe) are able to bank on their credit and cash in the rewards for their good deeds, nevertheless, they choose to approach beseeching Hashem from a different standpoint. Instead of implying to Hashem that “I deserve it,” they ask that Hashem offer it to them as a freebie (out of Hashem’s mercy and not because they deserve it). Hence, “chanan” is related to the word “chinam”—which means free.
Rashi seems to imply that praying based on Hashem’s mercy is more effective. Yet, as the Sefat Emet (Va’etchanan, תרמ”ו) asks, maybe banking on his credit would have in fact granted him entry to Israel, and thus may show it to be more effective than the latter!
R’ Chaim Kamil (brought in “Sichos R’ Nosson Tzvi”) explains that although Moshe desired to enter Eretz Yisrael and davened to be able to, nevertheless, the main purpose of his praying wasn’t even for that sake. Rather, it was mainly for the sake of praying itself—for the purpose of reaching a greater closeness to Hashem. Meaning, Moshe’s prayer wasn’t a means to be able to be granted the “end”—to enter Israel. Moshe’s praying for the most part was the end itself, and the request to enter Israel was simply an impetus for the main point of praying, which is...to pray, to come close to Hashem. Hence, Moshe wasn’t strictly trying to get something out of the prayer more than he was trying to simply reach an enhanced relationship with Hashem. Thus, if Moshe’s tefillot were mainly as a form of bargaining, to get something practical out of it—like entry into Eretz Yisrael, then we are left with the Sefat Emet’s question that perhaps davening based on “I deserve it” would have prevailed. But when Rashi says that the righteous leave their own credit aside and pray from the vantage point of Hashem simply having mercy on them, his intention may be that a righteous person’s approach toward tefillah is mainly to attain a closer relationship with Hashem, and as a result he indeed naturally leaves his personal credit out of the picture and instead focuses on Hashem’s greatness, love and mercy.
With this in mind, we can perhaps understand why Moshe persistently prayed, and perhaps wouldn’t have ceased if Hashem didn’t tell him to. For if prayer is only a means to get something out of it, then surely at a certain point one might give up. However, when the main purpose of prayer is to bond with Hashem, then no amount of prayer is considered too much. As the Gemara (Brachot 21a) brings R’ Yochanan, who remarked, “If only a person would pray all day.”
Typically, tefillah might be approached as a means to an end. For example, we are troubled with something, or need something, and we pray in order to receive help, alleviation and salvation. However, as R’ Yerucham Levovitz explains, tefillah is not intended to take away distress; rather, distress is brought in order for us to daven. Indeed, the troubles and needs are only a stepping stone to help us reach a closeness and a greater relationship with Hashem.
When Bnei Yisrael left Mitzrayim, the Mitzriyim chased after them and Bnei Yisrael found themselves in quite a tight situation. More than just “in between a rock and a hard place,” the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 21:5) says that Bnei Yisrael were encircled by danger on all four sides: the sea was in front of them, the Mitzriyim were behind them, and wild animals on both sides of them. And without a doubt did Bnei Yisrael cry out to Hashem for help. But why did Hashem put them in such a distressful and helpless situation? The midrash explains because “Hashem desired their prayer.” The implication seems to be that without distress Bnei Yisrael wouldn’t have davened, or at the very least wouldn’t have davened as much as they could have. Hence, not only do we see from here that the distress was a tool in order to get them to reach the goal of praying, but we also see how much Hashem wants us to connect with Him through prayer.
Tefillah is a sacred moment, a personal union between one and Hashem. In fact, the root of the word tefillah can perhaps be related to the root of the word “tiflut,” which is translated as “intimacy” (see Gemara Sotah 21). The pinnacle of tefillah, the “amidah,” is said quietly, which R’ Lawrence Kelemen notes is much like the way two loved ones connect with each other in affection. Indeed, when standing before Hashem in prayer, a person can reach an experience of being one with Hashem.
Many ask, tefillah is said so often—three times a day! [and sometimes more]. Why? Coming from a perspective of love and connection as the main framework of tefillah, one can appreciate that our day is surrounded by tefillah—morning, afternoon and evening—because in truth, the core of tefillah is the relationship with Hashem, which is a continuous, around-the-clock relationship. And thus, something this precious can make one feel like he can just pray all day.
Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected]