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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Vaetchanan: When the Time is Ripe

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

This week's reading continues the series of sermons and lectures that Moses delivered at the end of his life. His principle agenda was to stress the importance of following God's law, outlining the rewards which accrue to us if we do, and the punishments that result if we don't. Moses this week gives his account of the revelation at Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments (a crucial passage for anyone interested in the nature of revelation); he selects three cities on the Eastern bank of the Jordan to serve as "refuge cities", and he utters the immortal words, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One..." which becomes the first paragraph of the Shema.

In addition to the Shema, so many lines of this week's reading appear in Jewish liturgy. For example, Moses tells us to "‘know this day, and lay it on thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is nothing else" (Deuteronomy 4:39). These words appear in the Aleinu prayer, recited thrice daily. What's more, those words are a primary source for a hugely influential thread of Jewish philosophy, which I call nothing elsism, according to which there is, in some important sense, nothing in existence other than God. This tradition I try to make sense of elsewhere.

My focus here will be the lessons we can learn from this week's reading about prayer. In three places this week, the topic of prayer is especially salient. First, the reading opens with Moses recounting his own prayer to enter the Holy Land. This prayer is particularly noteworthy for the fact that its request was denied. That prayer was the subject of numerous heart wrenching Midrashim (see, for example, here).

The final prayer-relevant segment is the appearance of the Shema. The Shema became a prayer itself, and a most unusual prayer at that. Generally, words of prayer are addressed from people to God. But the words of this prayer are the words of God's messenger and they are addressed to us. In this way, Jewish liturgy is like a conversation. We address God in most prayers, but God addresses us in the Shema. Sandwiched somewhere between these two prayer-relevant segments, we find the following verse (Deuteronomy 4:7):

For which great nation is there to whom God is so close as the LORD our God is [to us] whenever we call upon Him?

Whenever the Jewish people call out to God (i.e., whenever they pray), God will be close to them. Jewish prayer is a conversation. The people call out and God answers them. We speak to God and God speaks to us. But is that true? Did Moses feel that God was close at hand when his heart-felt request to enter the land was spurned? Perhaps he did. He just knew that God, however close he might be, was saying no. But later prophets certainly make it sound as if God is sometimes distant from us, even when we call upon him. After describing the great social injustice perpetrated by the leaders of Israel, the prophet Micah (3:4) says:

Someday they shall cry out to the LORD, But He will not answer them; At that time He will hide His face from them, In accordance with the wrongs they have done.

And in the book of Lamentations we read (3:44):

You have screened Yourself off with a cloud, that no prayer may pass through.

How can Moses say otherwise, especially having told us that his own prayer was spurned? This week's Midrash seeks to address this tension:

Rabbi Chaninan bar Papa asked Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, "What is this which is written (in Psalms 69:14), "As for me, may my prayer come to You, O Lord, at a favorable moment" [i.e., is there really such a thing as a favorable moment]? He replied to him, "The gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes locked, but the gates of repentance are always open." He said to him, "From where do we derive this?" For it is written (Psalms 64:6), "Answer us with victory through awesome deeds, O God, our deliverer, in whom all the ends of the earth and the distant seas put their trust"; Just as this ritual bath is sometimes open and sometimes locked, so too the gates of prayer are sometimes open and sometimes locked, but this sea [to which the verse refers] is always open, so too the hand of the holy One, blessed be He, is always open to receive the penitent. Rav Anan says, the gates of prayer are also never locked, as it is said "[For which great nation is there to whom God is so close] as the LORD our God is [to us] whenever we call upon Him?"... Rabbi Chiya Rabba said, it is written (Psalms 27:14), "Look to the LORD; be strong and of good courage! O look to the LORD!" [With its repeated prayer it teaches us that] a person should pray and return and prayer again, and there will [eventually] be a time in which [what you pray for] is given to you. Alternatively: "As for me, may my prayer come to You, O LORD, at a favorable moment..." - Since David was a lone individual he said "[may this be] a favorable moment", but the prayer of a congregation [unlike the prayer of a lone individual] is never sent back empty handed, which is what is meant by "[For which great nation is there to whom God is so close] as the LORD our God is [to us] whenever we call upon Him?"

This Midrash is really a compendium of different competing theologies of prayer. According to Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman, there are propitious time and unpropitious times for petitionary prayer. We know this, since David, in the book of Psalms, expresses his hope that his prayer comes before God at the right sort of time.

The other proof text for Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman's theory is rather bizarre. A verse refers to distant seas. From this, he wants to infer that God's hand is a like an ocean for those who are distant, but like a meager bath-house to those who are already close.

In other words: God is always open to repentance, but once you've repented, and drawn close, he won't always be so accessible. The underlying theology here is fascinating. Why should God hide more from those who are close than from those who are far? There's plenty to say about this topic, but it won't be my focus this week.

Whatever the underlying rationale, Rabbi Chiya Rabba agrees that the time isn't always ripe for prayer. He quotes another psalm, with a repeating refrain, which indicates to him that a person should pray repeatedly, in the hope of someday catching God at a propitious time. But Rav Anan disagrees. This week's Torah reading tells us that God is always close to the Jewish people when they call. The time is always ripe.

Both sides of this debate have to confront Biblical verses which seem to undermine them. Rav Anan can cling to the verse from our Torah reading, that God is close to us when we call, but what about the verses in which God seems to close himself off to prayer? What about the prayer of Moses, at the start of our reading, which was turned down by God? Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman and Rabbi Chiya Rabba, on the other hand, can point to David's talk of a propitious moment; they can point to verses in which God seems cut off from prayer; but what about the verse of Rav Anan?

At this point, the nameless editor of the Midrash presents an alternative. Perhaps there's a difference between individual and collective prayer. An individual who wants to pray has to worry about whether the time is ripe. For Moses it wasn't ripe. But a community in prayer need have no such concern. The time is always ripe. This nameless theory is endorsed in the Talmud, by Rabbi Yochanan, in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai:

What is the meaning of that which is written, "and as for me, may my prayer come before you, Lord, at a propitious time"? When is it a propitious time? Whenever the congregation pray.

But we have to ask two questions about this solution to our problem. First: why does communal prayer make the difference? Secondly: does it really make the difference? When the sinful leaders in the book of Micah come together to pray, seemingly as a community, Micah says that God "will hide His face from them, in accordance with the wrongs they have done." It doesn't matter if they come in the plural, their prayers will be ignored.

Surprisingly, Maimonides seems to adopt a somewhat mechanical response to our first question - namely, why does communal prayer make the difference? He writes:

Congregational prayer is always heard [by the Almighty]. Even if there are sinners among them [since] the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayer of a multitude. Hence, a person should associate himself with the congregation, and never recite his prayers in private when he is able to pray with the congregation. One should always attend Synagogue, morning and evening; for only if recited in a synagogue, are one's prayers heard at all times. Whoever has a synagogue in his town and does not worship there is called a bad neighbour.

In other words, prayer is supposed to be said in a quorum and, ideally, in a sanctified location. Only if these ingredients are in place can you be sure that your prayer will be heard. I call this response mechanical because it seems to be a purely formal requirement. It doesn't matter if the congregation contains sinners; it doesn't matter who they are. It's more like a law of nature. If prayers are said collectively, they will be heard.

Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg

It's likely that Maimonides is here relying on his view that divine providence tends to operate at a communal level rather than at an individual level. On that view, communal prayer is more likely to make a difference since God's view of the world doesn't tend to differentiate between individuals.

Along these lines, Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg suggests, in his Etz Yosef, a commentary on our Midrash, that communal prayer is more effective "because providence over the collective is great and more than providence over the private and the personal."

But what if you don't buy into the Aristotelian prejudices of Maimonides according to which a perfect being wouldn't bother himself too much with individuals? What if you think that God's providence extends to every nook and cranny of the cosmos; to every hair on your head? And what about the verse in Micah, echoed in plenty of other places in the Bible in which God says he will, at times, ignore the prayers and the sacrifices of the community?

Here's a less mechanical suggestion from Rabbi Mecklenburg: perhaps communal prayer is more effective than individual prayer "because in the community there will certainly be found [at least one] single individual who prays with great devotion and intent. And therefore everyone will be answered in his merit." It's just the law of large numbers. The larger the community with whom you pray, the more likely you are to have tied your prayers to a collective containing at least one truly sincere worshiper.

On this reading, what Moses promises isn't that God will always be close to us when we call him. We know that this won't always be true. Instead, the idea is that God will always be close to us whenever we (or at least one of us) sincerely calls him.

In other words, collective prayer is the answer. But there's prayer and there's prayer. Some prayers are robotic, or habitual, or shallow. Some prayers, by contrast, flow from the depths of a person's soul. That sort of prayer is always heard. The time is always ripe. But that sort of prayer is difficult to produce. Human beings are rarely able to summon such concentration and unadulterated devotion. But in a collective you're more likely to find at least somebody truly praying than you'll find when you pray alone.

The problem with this suggestion is that it's not really the collective that's adding value to the prayer; it's the one individual who manages to summon the right state of mind who adds the value. If King David could have done that all alone, then he wouldn't have had to worry about whether the time was ripe. But that doesn't seem right. It seems as if the Midrash is suggesting that the community, rather than the devotion, is what adds value to the prayer.

This leads me to think that collective prayer is the answer, but that there are collectives and there are collectives. Sometimes a community gathers to pray together, but all that's really happening is the concurrent recitation of words. It's just lots of individuals in a room saying the same things at the same time. But they are not praying as a community.

I'm currently working on a project with my colleague Dr. Ayelet Langer. The project is a study of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The details needn't bother us here, but here are some of the philosophical ideas that we've been throwing around.

One of the most shocking discoveries of Einstein was that simultaneity is relative. On Einstein's physics, there's no fact of the matter as to whether two events happened at the same time or not. Instead, we can only say whether two events are simultaneous (or not) when viewed from a certain perspective. It's as if the perspective of the observer brings something to the table. Simultaneity is relative.

In a similar vein, Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann suggest (in an attempt to explain the philosophical theology of Boethius) that whether or not God's activity is simultaneous with events in our lives depends upon the perspective of observers. To boil down what is, in fact, a very technical theory about God's relationship to time, the idea is that God is always and everywhere available for simultaneity, but that this simultaneity will only occur to the extent that we time-bound beings are receptive to experiencing the Divine.

Dr. Langer and I have been looking at The Tempest as a source of suggestions regarding a crucial question: what are the preconditions for receptivity; what is it that makes a person able to share a moment with another, especially if that other, like God, transcends time altogether?

Here's a suggestion that bring us back to our Midrash. Perhaps a person is only able to experience the Divine in the here and now if they are able to experience other people in the here and now. This could be true for a variety of reasons. It could be that the sort of empathy and emotional intelligence required to truly share a moment with another person is a prerequisite for the harder achievement of sharing a moment with the Divine. Or, perhaps God is only interested in sharing time with people who love his other creatures; only if you can share experiences with others will God want to share experiences with you. And, in a moment when you're managing to share an experience deeply with other people, at that very moment, you will find God more accessible too.

The leaders in the book of Micah don't care about each other. Micah has already spoken of the terrible crimes of social injustice that they have perpetrated. They might pray in the same room. But to use the terminology that Dr. Langer and I have been developing, their prayers will be concurrent with one another, but they will not be simultaneous. They are too oblivious to the internal life of other human beings, they are too removed from empathy and compassion to be able to share an experience of prayer with other people. But that wasn't the sort of collective that Moses was speaking about in our reading. A collective of coarse and heartless people would be a collective of convenience rather than a true collective; a coming together of individuals into something greater than the sum of its parts. There's collective prayer and there's collective prayer. When it's truly collective, God will be experienced as immediately accessible.

Indeed, the Shulkhan Aruch rules that you should pray at the same time that the local community prays even if you can't, for some reason or other, be there in person. What makes it a propitious time isn't the brute fact that you've got the right number of people in the room with you, it's that you've aligned your heart with others, even if only from a distance. And of course, to pray is very often to unite yourself with people across chasms of time. To read the Jewish prayer book is to utter the very words that passed the lips of countless generations of people in heartfelt prayer.

But if this is right, then why wasn't Moses's prayer uttered at a propitious time? Surely he was the sort of person who could share with others. His whole life was dedicated to the physical and spiritual welfare of the people. For Moses, the time should always be ripe with or without a community.

Let me share with you another Midrash which suggests, even in the face of this question, that we're on the right lines. It starts with a quotation of Moses, from the beginning of this week's reading:

"I pleaded with God at that time" (Deuteronomy 3:23). To what can this matter be compared? To a Matron who had a son. All the while that her son was alive, she would enter the palace boldly. When her son died, she began to plead [i.e., more meekly] to be admitted [into the palace]. So too: all the while that Israel were alive in the desert, Moses entered boldly before the Holy One, blessed be He. [For example (Exodus 32:11)] "Why does your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people" [and, (Numbers 14:19)] "Please pardon the sin of this nation." [But,] when the Israelites died in the desert, he began to plead [more meekly] to be permitted entry to the land of Israel with supplications, "I pleaded".

The wrong way to read this Midrash, I think, is that Moses was meek when asking for himself and bold when asking for others. When her son was alive, the Matron would enter the palace boldly whatever reason she had for entering; even, presumably, if she was coming for herself.

When the first generation of Israelites were alive, Moses had whatever it was that he needed to enter before the King of Kings. Unlike the Matron who lost her son, Moses didn't lose the children of Israel, but he did lose that first generation; the generation that he knew and understood. Like the Matron, Moses was bereft. The second generation, as we discussed last week, was not a generation that Moses could understand. And since there was no longer a community with whom he could share, he also found it harder, in some sense or other, to access God.

Whenever a person can share space and time with others, through profound recognition of the other, and with empathy, compassion, and understanding, then a person can share space and time with God. The secret isn't mechanical concurrence, the secret is simultaneity.

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