Frederick L. Klein

Parashat Shemini: Praying for Miracles

This week’s parashah describes the initiation of the priests as well as the consecration of the Tabernacle. The Tabernacle was intended as a place where heaven and earth meet, the infinite with the finite, the perfect with the flawed. For seven days Moses had trained Aaron and his sons- the first priests, and at the end of each of those days the Tabernacle was disassembled.

According to Rashi reading of the episode (9:22-24), the people encounter a crisis at the end of each day;  the Divine presence had not yet descended from heaven. They are ashamed, assuming that the Divine presence is not present because of the sin of the golden calf, and they are unworthy.  Moses assures them, stating that only after the seven days will the Divine presence appear.  Yet, on the eighth day of the consecration of the temple, when all the work is done, Aaron blesses the people with the priestly blessing, and yet the Divine presence remains elusive.  Aaron himself, the appointed priest again assumes he is the reason, for it was he that fashioned the Golden Calf in the first place.  Moses and Aaron then together enter the sanctuary to pray, and they then come out and bless the people again.  What is the prayer?  The Biblical text is silent, but Rashi, quoting the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 12:9), states that Moses’ prays that “The Divine Presence shall rest upon the work of your hands” and invokes Psalm 90 (Tefilah LeMoshe) and specifically the last verse:

May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us;
let the work of our hands prosper,
O prosper the work of our hands!

It is only at this point that the Divine presence enters the camp in the form of fire.  Why this prayer and why only now?

What is significant here is that God’s presence can only reside within the camp when our works individually and collectively are worthy of God’s favor.  What brought the Divine presence into the camp was not simply the prayer of Moses, but the months of building and doing.  Moses’s prayer simply express the inner yearnings of the people. It was the positive action in building a sanctuary for God which overcame the fatal flaw of building a golden calf.  The dedication of the people towards false gods was redirected to create a world of elevation and transcendence.   Their dedication  and commitment to the holy tabernacle is testimony that there is a place in this world for the presence of God, even after a period of calamity.  However, what created the opportunity for this reconciliation was first the positive ‘work of our hands.”

This idea reminded me of a speech I gave many years ago, in 2007, for the National Day of Prayer on the Homestead Airforce Base in South Florida for US troops stationed there.  I was asked to address a Jewish theology of prayer, especially as it relates to times of uncertainty and adversity.  I am reproducing it below with a few changes for length, adapting it for the written word, in the hope that it will speak to you on personal, communal and national levels.  How you apply these messages in today’s context, I leave to each of you.

“I have been asked this morning to talk to you about how prayer has helped the Jewish people during times of adversity.  Unfortunately, Jews have had troubles.    Indeed, the Jewish people throughout history have had their share of hardships- forced exiles, discrimination, pogroms, and in the last century genocide.  And yet, we have been ultimately able to overcome these challenges, and even reestablish a homeland.  How has prayer helped us?

When Sergeant Chaplain Ayers asked me about the role prayer played for Jews during times of adversity, the question seemed so large.  How can I speak about the role prayer played in the life of a Jew during the first Crusade in 1099, when entire communities were massacred?  How can I imagine what the Spanish Jew felt or experienced when in 1492 he was given a number of months to leave the Iberian Peninsula or be forcibly converted.  Finally, what did the Jew stepping on the train to Auschwitz say to God?   Did they feel strengthened by prayer, or sometimes feel abandoned?  Did they feel they were talking to God or talking to a wall?  Ultimately, the response of each individual is ultimately unique and personal. For some, this was a test of their faith, and I am sure that some turned their eyes to the heaven with faith that God would be gracious, and whatever the outcome, ultimately they would be redeemed.  Others in times of adversity saw a world that no longer made sense.  They might have uttered, “There is no judge and there is no justice.”

Thus, when we talk about prayer, we must look at the communal norms.  That is to say, how did the Jews as a community respond in prayer to tragedy?    I would like to explore a fascinating case study.  In this complex ceremony,  Jews were commanded to awaken to the needs of others, clarify their own internal and national life, and challenged to respond.  The values which underscore this complex ceremony I think continue to inform Jews to this day, even if we no longer engage in this specific ritual.

I would like to take you back to the beginning of the Common Era in the land of Judea.  Judea was an economy based almost completely upon agriculture.  Famine was a reality of ancient life; during these times a very real possibility of starvation existed.  A crop failure was not a crisis for one or two individuals, but a societal existential threat, no different than war or pandemics, which have transformed or even destroyed societies.

In the land of Israel, there is a rainy and dry season.  From May to October, there is little or no rain.  Then beginning in late October the rains come, immediately following planting which takes place in the fall.  At the very beginning of this period, Jews went to the Temple and engaged in pouring water libations on the altar, asking God to provide both them and the world with rain.  In the daily prayer of the synagogues, Jews were also asked to pray for rain.  However, what would one do if the rains did not come?

According to the Mishna (Ta’anit), the Jewish government (Sanhedrin) took action, and called the community together for prayer.  This was not a time to reflect, but to act!  In the beginning, they would ask certain pious individuals to fast and pray.  However, if this was not efficacious, the Jewish court imposed a series of national days of fasts and prayer.  These fast days continued to increase in their severity if the rains did not come.  If by early winter the rains had not come, the court took drastic measures.   They imposed seven fast days upon the entire community, every Monday and Thursday for over two weeks.   They would last for 24 hours, and like Yom Kippur it was prohibited to engage in work, washing, putting on perfumes, wearing shoes, and engaging in sexual relations.  They would also close the Roman baths and the stores.  Finally, they would blow the shofar and recite various Psalms.

Why did they do this?  Well clearly, they believed prayer could be efficacious.  If not, why so many fasts, so many rituals?  The key to prayer is the belief that someone is listening!  However, the rabbis tell us of one man named Choni the Circlemaker, an ancient miracle worker.  On one occasion rain still did not fall.  What did he do?  He made a circle on the ground and sat in the middle.  He said to God “I will not move from this circle until you have mercy on your children.”    It began to drizzle.  “No, I do not want this.  I want real rain, the kind that fills up the wells!”  It rained so hard that it began to flood- a scourge we only know too well. Choni counters to God- “No- not like that, but rain in the appropriate rate and time.”  And of course, God listened.

One would think that everyone was happy with him, but the head of the Jewish court, Shimon ben Shetach, sends a letter to him.  “If it were not you, I would have you excommunicated, but what can I do.  You are like a spoiled child, and God does whatever you want. “  Why was Shimon ben Shetach so upset?  Didn’t Choni solve the problem?  Would it have been better for the rains not to come?

I think the key is to understand that Shimon ben Shetach felt the implications of Choni’s actions were dangerous.  Choni turned the act of prayer into a magical act.  Choni created a direct correlation between his acts and God’s reaction. Simply pray and all will be set aright.

Maimonides in his code (M.T. Hilkhot Ta’anit ch. 1) states communal crisis’s are times for moral and ethical introspection.  We ask, “What has gone wrong, or what have we done wrong, that has brought us to this juncture?”  Seen this way, prayer and fasting are part of a larger inner process of reevaluation. Through prayer and fasting the community is awoken from their slumber and engage in self-improvement and self-renewal.    In other words, prayer is a prelude to ethical change and development. Prayer without moral growth is irrelevant.  Prayer needs to transform the heart.

At first glance, Maimonides seems to suggest that adversity is a punishment for certain sins.  However, I think Maimonides’ thought is more nuanced then this.  He states “If one does not cry out or blow the shofar, but rather says that this is the way of the world, and this tragedy that has befallen us is happenstance- this is the way of cruelty and causes others to continue in their evil ways.  Only more suffering will come of it.”  Why does Maimonides call this ‘the way of cruelty”   Why is someone’s supposition that a tragedy is natural a ‘cruel reaction’.  I might think heretical, irreligious, but cruel?

The real question for us during times of adversity is not about the ways that God works, but how we are to react.  Adversity and challenge can be the basis for great moral and ethical growth, even spiritual revolution. However, we need to look into it for meaning.   This is true on a personal level but it is no different on a national level.

In national times of adversity, Maimonides is stating that we need to take a step back and ask, “How did we get here?”  “How do I understand the situation I am in?”  “How am I supposed to respond?”  The assumption that these things have no meaning- or to blame responsibility on others-  is to deny ourselves of an opportunity for moral growth- individually and communally.  It is to submit ourselves to a fatalism, that what was, is, and what is, will always be.

In this way of looking at things, prayer is quite different.  Prayer is not only a request that God solve a problem.  It is a call to God, to ask God to help us identify the issues in our lives- individually and communally, and to help us formulate a response.  In prayer we understand that what seems like an isolated event has reasons and meaning, demanding a response from us.   While we may not know the exact cause-effect relationship, we do know that events do not happen in a vacuum.

This is why to say that something just happens is called cruelty.  To simply say this event is haphazard is to deny this event of any meaning, and to relieve us of any introspection.  The event simply is and does not require a religious or ethical response.  When we say this, we cannot grow individually or collectively.

Choni’s prayer was helpful in the short term but damaging in the long term.  It took the onus off the people and prevented them from engaging in the work of introspection.  Choni allowed the people to abdicate their responsibility to God, and their moral responsibility to each other.  Prayer needs to be within a context of moral introspection which leads to action.“

In our parashah God did not come into the community of Israel because ‘they said the right things’, or ‘sacrificed the right sacrifices.”   God cannot be bribed. “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).   Following the ethical and spiritual disaster of the golden calf, the people introspected their ways, and began to build anew.  The prayer uttered by Moses did not magically bring God into the camp, but rather was an expression of the inner values of the collective desire of the people, that through their collective work God would rest God’s presence among them.

In our uncertain times, may our prayers not only bring salvation and miracles, but help us discern our sacred values in such a way in which we pave the way for miracles.  Speedily and in our days.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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