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Parshat VaEtchanan- Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation

07/24/2023 09:28:01 AM


Rabbi Rudin

The Unanswered Prayer


At that time, I begged G-d…let me please cross over and see the good land across the Jordan, the goodly highlands and the mountains of Israel! (Deuteronomy 3:25)

Moses has dedicated his entire life to bringing the Jewish people to the Promised Land. But he himself is barred from going there. In our Parsha, he begs one last time to be able to go into Israel if only just long enough to see for himself however briefly, that all of the struggles and travails of the last forty years of wandering through the trackless desert were somehow worth it; that in the end, the generations-long quest lihiot am chofshi b’artzeinu - to be a free people in our land, was fulfilled. 

Why did G-d deny this heartfelt request? Enough - speak of this no longer….go to the top of Mount Nebo and look upon the Land, north, south, east and west. Look upon it well, for you shall never go there. (3:27).

 The simple answer is that Moses lost his temper at the wrong moment, a crucial moment and struck the rock rather than speaking to it, missing a crucial opportunity to teach faith to the new generation. That one, fatal mistake cost Moses his leadership and his ability to bring the people into the Land.

But could there be no amnesty? No reprieve? All these years Moses never asked for anything for himself, always devoting his prayers for his people. The one time Moses begs for a single, apparently modest, request, it is refused.

So many heartfelt prayers are, heartbreakingly, not answered. How can we have faith in a loving G-d, a G-d whom we are told is there for us, who answers prayers, when tragedy darkens our eyes and shatters our souls?

I do not know if there are answers that can truly bring comfort. But some things I do know: The unanswered prayer is not a punishment. The act of prayer is not subscribing to a delusion of a loving, listening G-d but the outpouring of a broken heart. Prayer itself can be transformative, healing, uplifting in ways that cannot be really understood or explained. Prayer can help remind us who we are and what we truly care about. Prayer can give a voice to the unutterable.  Prayer can be a cry of anger, or a tear of grief, a rush of love, a flight of hope or a yielding of acceptance- and more. And in ways that we cannot ever know, even the prayer that we believe is not answered is never in vain.

Is Moses comforted by seeing the Land before him? According to the Midrash, he beholds all of the future generations of Israel from that mountain top as if it’s not the land that is spread out before him but time itself. Is there such a place, a place above time where we realize that there is no present, past and future but only a single eternal NOW where nothing is lost, nothing - and no one - truly gone?

The Torah scroll contains six hundred thousand letters, one for each Jewish soul that stood at Sinai - is that letter gone once we have read the portion of the week, or does it continue to matter, continue to be a part of and to build the story that is being told? Jewish law says that if a single letter is missing, the entire scroll is invalid. Everything and everyone matters and continues to matter in this Torah scroll, this story that we are all a part of.

When Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was asked how he would respond to a child who told him that he no longer believed in G-d because his parent had died, Rabbi Sacks said, “I would give him a hug.” When prayer brings us together in love and compassion, even the unanswered prayer in the end perhaps, finds an answer.

Shabbat Shalom

Wed, April 17 2024 9 Nisan 5784