THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Va’era – פרשת וארא
January 13, 2018 – כו טבת תשעח
Do Not Pray Here
Hail, the seventh of the ten plagues, devastated Egypt. Pharaoh finally realized that he had to let the Israelites go, as Moses had repeatedly asked. He begged Moses to entreat the Lord to stop the hail and frightening thunder. Moses responded affirmatively: “As soon as I am gone out of the city, I will spread forth my hands unto the Lord; the thunders shall cease, neither shall there by any more hail (Exodus 9:29).”
Why did Moses tell Pharaoh that his prayer for the cessation of hail would be delayed until after he had left the city? Ramban explains that, unlike the case with the earlier plagues of frogs and beetles, after which Pharaoh similarly requested that Moses petition God for relief but was willing to wait until the morrow, Pharaoh craved immediate deliverance from the hail. Moses was willing to comply, but felt it necessary to inform Pharaoh of a delay. Moses’ unstated (to Pharaoh) reason was that such a prayer could not be offered within the city’s boundariesבעבור שפרעה מבקש עתה שיסור הברד מיד הוצרך משה לפרש כי יצטרך לצאת את העיר.
A careful review of Exodus chapters 5-9 shows that Moses never shifted from talking with Pharaoh to talking with God until he first distanced himself from the Egyptian ruler. After Moses’ disastrous first meeting with Pharaoh, which resulted in even more crushing servitude for the Israelites, Moses did not immediately complain to God about the impossibility of the mission God had ordered him to undertake. He first left Pharaoh’s chambers (5:20), and then “returned to God וישב משה אל יי (5:22).” When Pharaoh requested that Moses pray for the removal of frogs, Scripture reports: “And Moses and Aaron went out from Pharaoh, and Moses cried unto the Lord ויצא משה ואהרן מעם פרעה ויצעק משה (8:8).” And, in agreeing to petition God for the removal of beetles, Moses said to Pharaoh: “Behold, I go out from thee, and I will entreat the Lord הנה אנכי יוצא מעמך והעתרתי אל יי (8:25).”
Why this need for separation from Pharaoh before petitioning God? The Anchor Bible suggests that the text depicts a messenger shuttling between negotiating sovereigns, in that Pharaoh regarded himself as a divine being. Judaic sources have a different view. For example, Rashbam claims that Moses always returned to the same special place where he communicated with God וישב משה אל המקום שהיה יי מדבר עמו שם. Benno Jacob speculates (though it is more than a stretch) that Moses repeatedly returned to Mount Horeb, which was a long distance from the capital of Egypt.
In general, Rabbinic Judaism looks favorably upon those who dedicate a set place for prayer. The Talmud cites Abraham as the initiator of such a practice, and says that anyone who acts similarly will be aided by the God of Abraham כל הקובע מקום לתפילתו אלוקי אברהם בעזרו (Berakhot 6b).
Another suggestion is that Moses needed the psychological and spiritual benefits that solitude brings. Divine inspiration and being attuned to hear the Heavenly voice, do not come easily to a person distracted by the sights and sounds of civilization. It is useful to remember that Moses’ first encounter with God – at the Burning Bush — occurred a great distance from civilization. (Exodus 3:1). Many of the great seers of Israel were shepherds, similarly experiencing prophetic visions while geographically distant from their fellow man. The great heathen prophet Balaam also appreciated the point. Before commencing his verbal assault upon Israel, he sought Divine inspiration. Balaam instructed Balak to remain near the sacrifices, while he, Balaam, would wonder off hoping for a chance encounter with God (Numbers 23:3). Onkelos describes Balaam as אזל יחידי walking alone.
Rabbinic Judaism recognizes the need for solitude even within the context of communal prayer. That is one reason it is forbidden to pass (within four cubits) in front of someone immersed in prayerאסור לעבור כנגד המתפללין (Berakhot 27a).
The Midrash explains that Moses could not pray in the city because it was filled with idolatrous images מלאה שיקוצים וגילולים (Mekhilta, Bo Pisha 1). Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and the other major commentators adopt this interpretation. Pseudo-Jonathan’s rendering of 9:29, כמפקי סמיך לקרתא, indicates that he too accepted the Midrashic understanding; it was only necessary for Moses to go just beyond the city limits.
Of course, God (omnipresent and omniscient according to most Jewish theologians) is able to hear the prayer of a righteous person, even if that person finds himself in an area of theological iniquity. The Jew dragged into the office of the medieval Inquisitor could properly offer a nonverbal prayer at that moment of crisis, despite the presence of graven images. There is no place on earth from which one cannot cry out for God’s mercy. The gates of prayer are never closed, irrespective of one’s physical location; but one is not permitted voluntarily to pray in an inappropriate place (like a bathroom), if there are alternatives available.
Yet, and separately, tradition also teaches that, at times, God chooses to make Himself unavailable to us. The First Temple was destroyed because Israel was guilty of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed (Yoma 9b). Graven images were placed in the Temple. The prophet described the situation metaphorically: “For the bed is too short for a man to stretch himself, and the covering too narrow when he gathereth himself up (Isaiah 28:20).” The rabbis explained that God would not tolerate being seemingly rivalled by a false deity קצר מצע זה מהשתרר עליו שני רעים כאחד. God chose to absent Himself from the very house built in His honor. God’s glory is everywhere, but our history shows that He sometimes elects to remove Himself for those places where He appears to be unwanted, unappreciated, or disregarded. It follows that prayer in a location suffused with heathenism is likely to be ineffective.
The fifteenth century Ashkenazi sage Rabbi Israel Isserlein was asked whether a traveler should a) pray the afternoon service on the road, exposed to danger, or b) enter a pagan city and pray in the safety of a hotel room. Citing Exodus 9:29, Isserlein ruled that, if possible, praying outside the city, and on the side of the highway, is preferred. He noted that nearly every hotel owned by non-Jews is filled with theologically objectionable paintings and figurinesכמעט ואין מלון שלא תמצא בה הרבה גילולים מצוירים או חקוקים בכותל וגם לפעמים תועבות ופסילים (Terumat Ha-Deshen 6).
During the twentieth century, great sages several times issued rulings prohibiting Jews from attending services in a Jewish house of worship deemed insufficiently Orthodox. The most doctrinaire approach advised reciting the High Holiday liturgy at home and losing the mitzvah of shofar, rather than entering such a synagogue.
We Jews tend to find fault with one aspect or another of our home synagogues. That is a main reason new shuls are frequently established. Often, however, the reasons for such dissatisfaction are petty. Instead, what we should be looking for in a place of prayer is nothing more than a fixed location free of mundane distractions and heretical manifestations, where we can praise and petition God and be at one with Him.