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Va-‘Ethannan Deut. 3:23 – 4:8. – Jonathan Bergwerk

Why did you come to shul today? Maybe because you have a Yahrzeit or are wardening. Perhaps you came to meet friends. Maybe it’s the lure of the fish balls at Kiddush.

  • One reason we probably should come is to pray. The three names we have for our shul are the house of community, the house of study and the house of prayer. Well we all know how to meet and socialise and Radlett is pretty good at that. We have all experienced study and we are very good at delegating that to others. But what it means to pray is really rather murky. Should I (and maybe you) be praying now that I give a good sermon?! What does ‘good’ mean? Is your definition of good (possibly ‘short’ with a decent joke) the same as mine?
  • Last week I didn’t pray and was glad I didn’t. I was walking in the Lake District. The path petered out, the clouds came down and the only way back was a difficult scramble down heather and rock. Eventually I got safely down to the bottom, and met some people who were about to take the same path and I put them off. So my bad luck ended up helping others. If I had prayed on top for the path to be clear, I might effectively have been praying for someone else to come to harm. How can I know what to pray for when I can’t know what are the consequences of my self-oriented prayers?
  • Prayers come in many shapes and sizes but two verses we read today are used by the Talmud (Berachot 32a) to explain how one should pray. Put simply we should first praise God (Deut. 3:24) and then pray for our own needs (Deut. 3:25).
  • Up until about 200 BCE Jews composed their own prayers. Gradually the best of these were written down and became the prayers we use today. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah (see our prayer book). Whenever the Talmud mentions tefilah it means the Amidah – which even today is at the core of our liturgy. This was compiled into its final form after the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE.
  • Let’s have a look at how that comes through in the daily Amidah (p75 of the siddur). It starts off with prayers praising God (Avot, Gevurot, Kedushot). These are then followed by loads of petitions (‘asks’) – 6, 7, 8, 9… all the way to the 18th paragraph (modim) which goes back to thanksgiving. There is clearly a formula for saying prayers that works.
  • That reminds me of my friend Jacob who tried to break the rules and create his own prayer. His business had gone bust so he went to shul and prayed “God, please help me. I’ve lost my business and if I don’t get some money soon, I’m going to lose my house as well. Please let me win the lottery.” Saturday night came and he didn’t win. Jacob went back to the synagogue. “God, please let me win the lottery. I’ve lost my business, my house and now I’m even going to lose my car as well!” Saturday night came and still Jacob had no luck. Back to shul, “My God, why have you forsaken me? I’ve lost my business, my house, my car and my wife and children are starving. Why won’t you let me win the lottery so I can get my life back in order?” Suddenly there was a flash of light and Jacob was confronted by the voice of God “Jacob, my son…. meet me halfway on this one – buy a ticket!”
  • Back in our parashah, Moses was desperate to get to the Promised Land. It was his life’s work, but he was doomed to fail. He was going to turn out to be no better than the wicked generation who God had condemned to die in the desert. The upstart Joshua would lead the nation out of the wilderness. Moses had striven for 40 years, doggedly pursing this one goal. But like nearly every other character in Torah he died unfulfilled.
  • Why was Moses condemned? It must have been something he’d done. Because he hadn’t trusted God (Num. 20:12); he hit the rock twice to bring out water rather than talked to it. So why was Moses praying? He was pleading for God to change His mind. But even the pagan prophet Balaam knew this was wrong. “God is not man to be capricious or mortal to change His mind”. (Num. 23:19). Often when our prayers haven’t been answered, we say God hasn’t listened to us, but actually the text (3:26).makes it clear that God had listened; it’s just that we don’t like His answer – especially Him saying no.
  • In contrast King Solomon got his prayers right. In a dream God gave him one wish. Solomon didn’t ask for riches or long life or success over his enemies. Instead he asked for the wisdom to discern between good and evil. He wanted to improve himself, to develop his inner compass and become a better person – for the benefit of others.
  • Praying to win a medal in the Olympics, or catch the train when we are late, or when we bargain with God (‘if this plane lands safely then I will give £100 to charity’) are effectively asking for a miracle. These types of prayers trouble me; we are treating God as we might ask a boss for a raise, and we feel aggrieved when we don’t get it, as if by saying the words of a prayer in the right way. I have the power to influence God to change what He would otherwise have done. I don’t want to worship that sort of easily manipulated God. Or one who demands I submit to the tyranny of praying formulaically 3 or 5 times a day.
  • The word tefilah comes from the verb l’hitpalel, which is a reflexive form of verb and means ‘to judge oneself’. The most important part of any Jewish prayer is introspection; the moment that I spend looking inside myself, understanding my place in the world and seeking out the still, small voice of God. Ultimately, the purpose of prayer is for me to transform myself. It is not God that changes through our prayer; rather prayer is the way we change ourselves, and so change the direction of our life. Prayer is the dialogue of our inner soul.
  • And our parashah helps us understand who is in that dialogue. 4:1-8 explain that God has defined for us the laws and rules of the perfect life. We can’t change these. These are absolute not relative values. Murder is not right under any circumstances. In Freudian terms the Law represents our superego, our conscience, what we should be doing as decided by God – our demanding parent, who sits on our shoulders nagging us.
  • In the opposite corner is my id with its childlike, instinctive impulses. At Baal-Peor (Deut. 4:3) our ids led us to have sex with the wrong people. The id is apparent when we cut corners, impulsively doing what we want at the cost of others or our own self-respect. It is Moses thinking ‘its not fair’ when he can’t go into the Promised Land.
  • Freud described the superego and id as two horses hitched to a cart who are pulling in different directions. What controls them is the ego and contrary to popular opinion, having a big ego can be good, as this means I am consciously choosing what to do,
  • So prayer is the way we can stop, take time out and have a conversation between what I feel I should do and what I really want to do. This self-reflection helps me find a compromise position that defines who I am and what I stand for. In Verse 7 God is described as ‘close at hand’; if I really concentrate I can visit the private place in my heart and talk with God pretty much whenever I choose. That is so long as I am not distracted when praying. Then I fall into the trap of simply mouthing someone else’s words by rote without really listening to them or making them meaningful to me.
  • Prayer is the way to keep my soul healthy. A good prayer gives me the courage to change myself, feel more confident about the future and have more strength to act in the right way. As the Ba’al Shem Tov asked “if you are the same after your prayer as you were before, for what reason or purpose did you then pray?”
  • Moses had an unrealistic goal to reach the Promised Land. None of us are going to achieve all we want. So we shouldn’t define the success of our lives on whether we reach this goal – through prayer or otherwise. What matters more is how we use life’s journey for spiritual growth and to pray to have the courage to deal positively with whatever the world throws at us.

Shabbat Shalom and on with the Amidah and some proper praying!

Jonathan Bergwerk

20.8.16

Fri, 19 July 2019 16 Tammuz 5779