The Eternal Dilemma of Unanswered Prayers

How should we relate to the unanswered prayers of an entire people?

Rabbi Simlai explained: “A person should always set out his praise of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and only afterward should he pray. From where [do we learn this]? From Moshe…” 

Rabbi Simlai then quotes the text from D’varim where Moshe prays to be allowed to cross the Jordan and see the land promised to Am Yisrael, having presaged his request with words of praise. And so we do to this day: we begin the central prayer of our liturgy with words of praise, and only afterward insert our requests for individual and national well-being.

And yet, the prayer which R’ Simlai holds up as a model was one that was not in fact granted. Despite Moshe’s eloquent and heartfelt pleas, he died in the desert and was not even granted burial in Eretz Yisrael.

How is it that we base the order of the central prayer of our liturgy on a prayer that was not granted? Perhaps there is a hint in this: unless we understand at the outset that God is a free agent, we should not even begin to pray. But more: even our praise must be founded on the understanding that the answer may be “no”.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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