One of the most central elements of Jewish life is prayer, providing a basis for community assembly and a rhythm to structure our days. Yet despite the importance of prayer in our tradition, many struggle to find a connection to the liturgy itself. Several factors could contribute to this obstacle: The prayer service contains a considerable, and sometimes overwhelming, amount of text. Once an individual has mastered the words themselves, the familiarity we cultivate through their regular repetition can lead to complacency about their meaning. But instead of listing the challenges we face when we pray, perhaps the question could be rephrased: Where can we find examples that teach us to pray with greater authenticity?
I want to suggest an additional reason why the prayer service poses a challenge based on the ideas of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In his collection of essays on prayer, worship of the heart, Rabbi Soloveitchik characterizes the act of praying as exposing one of religion’s great paradoxes: God is both present and absent – powerful enough to alter the course of history, yet so often elusive when we ask that our personal and community circumstances change. In the words of Rabbi Soloveitchik, “Many times man wonders whether or not God wants to intervene on his behalf” (77). If we assume that God is unresponsive to our pleas, it’s hard to imagine why we should try to pray.
This paradox is exacerbated by what seems to be a primordial need to engage in the act of prayer. In Rabbi Soloveitchik’s characterization, this need is driven by the necessary confrontation between an individual and the inevitable reality of pain and suffering that is an integral part of the human condition. “From the depths in which the individual lies, one invokes God in isolation and solitude… No one but the victim himself is involved in this profoundly human anguish and conflict” (33). The power of God means he can end this suffering and pain, but we often find it hard to cry out for help. Prayer, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s formulation, requires us to be immensely vulnerable to the pain we feel in our lives and in our world.
In Numbers 12, we see Moses experience a moment of vulnerability as he summons up his courage to ask for divine mercy. Miriam is slapped with white scales as punishment for her misguided gossip about Moses. Terrified to see his sister in this state, Moses cries out succinctly for God’s help: “O God, pray, heal her!” (Numbers 12:13). At this moment, Moses looks like the praying individual described by Rabbi Soloveitchik: he is pained by the suffering he sees before him and does not know if God will grant his request. Yet despite his uncertainty about the outcome, Moses pleads from this place of vulnerability in the hope that God’s mercy will prevail.
In Numbers 12:3, the Torah reveals that Moses is the humblest of men. Identifying what exactly this humility covers is debated among commentators; however, I would suggest that we see some of this trait emerge in his short prayer for his sister. Moses rushes to humble himself before God, pleading for mercy to prevail over justice. Despite the risk of seeing his request rejected and exacerbating the pain he feels, Moses is ready to cry out in the face of suffering. I wonder if one of the challenges of prayer is not precisely the need to submit ourselves to such a high level of vulnerability: to be honest with ourselves and with God about the suffering we encounter in our lives. Moses provides a model for navigating this confrontation, reminding us that part of the human experience is to express the pain we feel.
Zoë Lang is on the faculty of Maimonides School in Brookline, where she teaches Jewish history. She is also the director of Ma’ayan, an organization that creates text-based learning opportunities in the greater Boston area. She lives in Brighton, MA.