We are used to saying that the biblical role model for prayer is Hannah who stood moving her lips in silence and pouring out her heart to the Eternal, as described at the beginning of the book of Samuel, praying for a child whom she would dedicate to God’s service. We also may assume that the most interesting statement about God in this week’s parashah is the Sh’ma, Listen, Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is one, Love the Eternal your God….’ and so may not realise that Moses has given us not only commandments about our relationship with God – Acknowledge God’s existence, Love God, Keep talking about God – but also a role model of pouring out our hearts in a strongly felt plea to God, in the word va-etchanan, ‘and I implored you’ right at the beginning of the parashah.
Of course we all know that, despite frequently being described as ‘the most important prayer in Judaism’, the Sh’ma is not a prayer: it is a theological statement. Listen Israel, here is some information about the nature of God, that God is our God and that there is only one God. When my Israeli nephew visited England aged 6, he heard me saying Sh’ma with my son at bedtime and got very cross and said, ‘you mustn’t say “Sh’ma Israel” here, you must say “Sh’ma Anglia”.’ A very logical comment. Whether we say Sh’ma aloud and standing, sharing the information with those round us, or sitting with eyes covered, speaking only to ourself, or murmur it to ourselves last thing at night, whether we say it to a new-born baby, whether we say it to someone in their last moments who can no longer say it for themselves but may hear it, we are reminding ourselves about God and the importance of loving God. But the Sh’ma does not answer the question of how we speak to God. One of Moses’ audience who listened attentively to the commands would know more about what to believe about God and what to feel about God but nothing about how to speak to God, how to turn love for God into communication rather than a spiritual emotion.
Moses’ example here is not just of someone speaking to God, but someone imploring, begging wholeheartedly. I remember Rabbi Dov Marmur discussing in a class on sermons whether it is ever right for a preacher to talk about themselves and their own experience. Moses, like Rabbi Marmur, seems to have felt that it is only appropriate to do this occasionally since most of his first person references are simply descriptive, e.g. Deut.10:8 ‘And I stood on the mountain’. But here he is describing an emotional plea. He is also, as we realise even if his hearers did not, being somewhat economical with the truth, constructing a narrative more flattering to himself than the events we remember. Moses gave two reasons why he is not allowed to enter the land, both of which conceal the events in Numbers, that God punished him for disobeying the precise instructions he was given (Num.20:11-13) about how to get water for the people. In Deut. I:37 Moses said his exclusion from the land is linked to the bad reports of the land brought by the ten spies who thought it was too dangerous a place. In Deut. 3:23 Moses anticipates Maimonides instruction that petitionary prayer should start with praise, a formula we still follow in the Amidah, and quotes his praises to God prior to making his request, asking to enter the land. The reason he gave here for the Eternal’s emphatic refusal is that the Eternal was angry with him because of the people’s behaviour.
We might question whether Moses is justified in blaming the people for his inability to enter the land and therefore the transition of leadership to Joshua, yet another thing for them to be nervous about. But as well as not publicly acknowledging the harm caused by his anger, Moses in these chapters bears out the description of him in Numbers 12:3 as anav, humble. On two occasions God threatened to destroy the people, once when they worshipped the golden calf and once when they were so alarmed by the report of the ten hostile spies that they refused to enter the promised land. Twice Moses persuaded God that this was the wrong thing to do. Rather than become a new Abraham (Exodus 32:10-13), Moses reminded God of the original covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and also said that God really couldn’t afford to let the surrounding nations think that the people were redeemed only so they could perish. On the second occasion, we can see how Moses’ skills as a leader and speaker have improved; he strengthened the original argument by saying that the nations will think God incapable of bringing the people to the land and also quoted back to God the 13 attributes of God uttered on Mount Sinai, and added words we pray on Yom Kippur, ‘Pardon the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your loving-kindness’. But he said ‘I implored you’ to let me enter the land, he did not say ‘I implored you to let the people live.’
So a little covering up information unflattering to himself is followed by a far more significant refusal to say, ‘it’s only thanks to me that you are here to enter the land.’
Not only does Moses teach us that God can be prayed to – whether or not we get what we ask for – he also established in these early chapters of Deuteronomy the sense of continuous tradition that leads us to talk at the Passover seder of the redemption which happened to ‘us’. Moses told the people that ‘God ‘spoke to you face to face (Deut.5:4). Moses, Joshua and Caleb are the only men who stood there at Mount Sinai; all those who refused to enter the land have since died. It is their children whom Moses insisted remember the giving of the Ten Commandments as if they had been there, teaching them to pray, teaching them to feel that they have always been in God’s presence and teaching them that modesty about one’s greatest achievements can be part of great leadership.
Rabbi Rachel Montagu
Ordained LBC 1984
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.