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Giving voice to pain

Moses reaches out to God on behalf of Miriam with profound vulnerability, and thereby teaches the essence of authentic prayer (Behaalotcha)
'Praying Jew,' Aleksander Grodzicki, 1893. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
'Praying Jew,' Aleksander Grodzicki, 1893. (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most central components to Jewish life is prayer, offering a basis for communal assembly and rhythm to structure our days. Yet despite the importance of prayer in our tradition, many find it difficult to find connection with the liturgy itself. Several factors could contribute to this impediment: the prayer service has a considerable, and sometimes overwhelming, amount of text. Once an individual has mastered the words themselves, the familiarity that we cultivate through the regular repetition of them can lead to complacency about their meaning. But instead of listing the challenges that we face when praying, perhaps the question could be reframed: where can we find exemplars who teach us to pray with greater authenticity? 

I want to suggest an additional reason that prayer service poses a challenge based on the insights of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In his collection of essays on prayer, Worship of the Heart, Rabbi Soloveitchik characterizes the act of praying as exposing one of the great paradoxes of religion: God is both present and absent — powerful enough to alter the course of history, yet so often elusive when we petition for our personal and communal circumstances to change. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, “Many a time man wonders whether or not God cares to intervene on his behalf” (77). If we presume that God remains unmoved by our pleas, it is difficult to imagine why we should attempt to pray at all. 

This paradox is exacerbated by what appears to be a primal need to engage in the act of prayer. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s characterization, this need is driven by the necessary confrontation between an individual and the inevitable reality of the pain and suffering that is an integral part of the human condition. “Out of the depths in which the individual finds himself, one calls upon God in seclusion and loneliness…No one but the sufferer himself is involved in this deeply human anguish and conflict” (33). God’s might means that He can bring an end to this suffering and pain, but so often we find it difficult to cry out for help. Prayer, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s formulation, requires us to be immensely vulnerable to the pain that we feel in our lives and in our world. 

In Numbers 12, we see Moses experience a moment of vulnerability when he summons his courage to petition for divine mercy. Miriam is stricken with white scales as a punishment for her ill-advised gossiping about Moses. Distraught at seeing his sister in this state, Moses succinctly cries out to God for assistance: “O God, pray heal her!” (Numbers 12:13). In this moment, Moses resembles the individual at prayer described by Rabbi Soloveitchik: he is pained by the suffering he sees in front of him and unsure if God will grant his petition. Yet despite his uncertainty at the outcome, Moses pleads from this place of vulnerability in the hopes that God’s mercy will prevail.

In Numbers 12:3, the Torah reveals that Moses is the most humble of men. Identifying what exactly this humility includes is the subject of debate among the commentators; however, I would suggest that we see some of this trait emerging in his short prayer for his sister. Moses rushes to humble himself before God, pleading for mercy to prevail over justice. Despite the risk of having his petition rejected and exacerbating the pain that he feels, Moses is willing to cry out in the face of suffering. I wonder if one of the challenges that prayer poses is precisely the need to subject ourselves to such a high level of vulnerability: to be honest with ourselves and with God about the suffering that we encounter in our lives. Moses provides a model for navigating this confrontation, reminding us that part of the human experience is voicing the pain that we feel.

About the Author
Zoë Lang is on the faculty of Maimonides School in Brookline, where she teaches Jewish history. She is also the Director of Ma'ayan, an organization that creates text-based learning opportunities throughout the greater Boston area. She lives in Brighton, MA.
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