Praying to Pray: Va-Et’chanan Prayer Links

The earliest prayer links in Va-etchanan come in the first verse, long before what is probably the portion’s most famous passage: the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9). In fact, there are prayer links galore in the portion’s first word: “va-etchanan” [I pleaded, implored]. Some commentaries examine details of the communication between Moses and God as the portion opens. Some focus, more generally, on what prayer can (or should) mean to regular folks.

**Speaking of communication, please see the query below about sources and editing. Thoughts most welcome.**

At that time, Saying

I pleaded [va-etchanan] with the LORD at that time, saying, “O Lord GOD, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your might hand, You whose powerful deed no god in heaven or on earth can equal! Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country and the Lebanon.”
–Deuteronomy/Devarim 3:23-25, JPS*


This poignant narrative scene gets a lot of attention in the commentary. A number of teachers, including Levi Yitchak of Berditchev, conclude that the first verse alone encompasses two incidences, or two phases, of prayer.

I do not entirely follow the logic myself; if any reader does, please enlighten us all. But the discussion focuses on the expressions “at that time” [ba-eit ha-hi] and “saying” [lemor, as well as the Talmudic explanation that the introductory “Adonai, open my lips…” and the Amidah form one “long T’filah” (Berakhot 4b). It is concluded, in essence, that Moses prayed first for the ability to pray and/or for God’s receptivity and then made his plea; similarly, we open the Amidah with a request for help to pray…and then we pray.

God, the People and Prayer

The gematria of va-etchanan equals 515. Notes in Plaut* (and in the newer Plaut/Stein*) write out the arithmetic and cite several equivalencies: 515 is also the gematria of t’filah [prayer] and of shir [song]. In addition, “if God is present in prayer (add yod-hey-vav-hey = 26) you obtain 541, a number equivalent to the letters in “Yisrael.”

So, “pleading” is equivalent to, or at least one form of, “prayer” — and/or Moses offered 515 prayers at this point. Moreover, “song and prayer go together” (Ba’al Ha-Turim [c.1269, Germany, to c. 1343 Spain]. In addition, Plaut says, citing Chatam Sofer (1762-1839, Slovakia): “If Israel clings to God in prayer, it will gain true life.” (p.1336 in Plaut/p.1215 in Plaut/Stein)

Not coincidentally, a number of comments in My People’s Prayer Book, vol 2: The Amidah* focus on the role of God in prayer as the Amidah begins. Several note that the Amidah also closes with words from the Psalms focusing on the God-human-prayer interaction: “May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be favorable before You, Adonai, my rock and redeemer” (Ps. 19:15; the addition of this closing verse is another Talmudic innovation).

“Adonai, open my lips that my mouth may declare your praise.” While we commonly think that prayer happens solely at the initiative of the person praying, this verse from Ps. 51:17, placed at the beginning of the Amidah — what the Rabbis call “The Prayer” — strongly proclaims another message. We are, as it were, dumb when we want to address God. We need God’s help in what we are about to do. Prayer, in other words, is not the utterances of the person praying, as subject, to God, as object. Prayer is, rather the interaction of the person praying with God. For prayer to work, God has to want to help us pray as much as we must want to pray.
–p.54, Eliott Dorff (“theological reflections”), My People’s Prayer Book


Lawrence Kushner and Nehemia Polen (“chasidic and mystical perspectives”) explore why we don’t begin the Amidah by saying “something like, ‘Here I am god, ready to begin our conversation,’ or ‘Permit me to introduce myself’…” They conclude that “prayer may ultimately be an exercise for helping us let go of our egos.”

David Ellenson (“how the modern prayer book evolved”) notes that the opening line, once omitted from Reform and Reconstructionist prayer books, has returned, “demonstrat[ing] the extent to which people have internalized a personalistic faith once again” (p.54).

These and other comments are available on-line (although getting your hands on one or more books in this series is also a great idea).

God, the People, and Prayer Books

As Ellenson notes, “Adonai open my lips” is prominently included in the 1996 Reconstructionist Kol Haneshamah* and the 2007 Reform Mishkan T’filah. The single line is accompanied, however, but many notes about the God-prayer-human interaction. Here are just two:

The introductory words (Psalm 51:17) of the Amidah contain a paradox of divine and human power. Our ability to be whole, upright, free, and fully alive grows as we acknowledge and appreciate an infinitely higher source of power in the universe. This allows us to be receptive. By acknowledging our human vulnerability, we open our hearts to the support, compassion, and faithfulness available to us.
— Sheila Peltz Weinberg, p. 90, Kol Haneshamah

Prayer is not a shout into an empty void answered only by its own echo. Prayer is the spirit within us reaching out to the Spirit of the universe, and prayer is that Spirit responding to us.
— Robert I. Kahn, p. 75, Mishkan T’filah


The independent Siddur Eit Ratzon* (first published in 2003) takes its name from the editor’s struggle with the concept of a “right time” for prayer, of having to find God in, or bring God to, a mood receptive to our prayer. See, for example:

The right time for prayer [concluding words of “Mah Tovu“]. The literal translation leaves open the possibility that this time is not “acceptable.” We adopt the perspective that God’s hand is always open, that God’s ear is always listening, and that God’s presence and love are always available. Every moment is the right time for prayer.

The final meditation, “God’s Presence,” is a closing prayer for the Amidah…that reminds us that although we have concluded our audience with God and, in one sense, are about to leave God’s presence, we don’t really have to leave. We can invite God to be present in our lives; we can choose, each day, to live in God’s house.
–Joseph Rosenstein, p.10, p.6 Siddur Eit Ratzon


“At that time,” at the time of the Mishnah, and at this…the struggle continues.


* Please see Source Materials for complete citations and more details on Torah translations and other references.



from Kedushat Levi:

[Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23] “I pleaded with Hashem at that time, to say:” the word [lemor] after we have been told that Moses pleaded with Hashem appears totally superfluous. Who else was this to be relayed to? In light of this, it appears that the correct interpretation of this verse is that prior to Moses’ praying to G’d on his own behalf he pleaded with Hashem to ensure that He was in a receptive mood for the prayer which would follow. This is also why the Torah added the words: [ba-eit ha-hi], “at that time,” to teach us that before that time Moses felt too ashamed to offer entreaty or prayer on his own behalf.

Another possible way of explaining the opening line of our [summary of discussion in Berakhot 4b]…the sages declared the Amidah as a “long prayer,” i.e., the line beginning “Lord open my lips,” are [sic] considered an integral part of the Amidah rather than merely an introduction….

From the above it follows that our prayers must be viewed as consisting of two separate components. One consists of the actual prayer, as composed by the members of the Great Assembly, and the second consists of a plea to enable us to pray in such a way that our prayers find the desired response from G’d.
— p.712-713, Kedushat Levi*

(back)

Truth in quotation: This passage also includes an explanation based on “the gradual but constant decline of the spiritual level of the Jewish people”: In the time of the Great Assembly, no special plea before praying the Amidah was needed; by the time of the Mishnah, however, “it had become necessary to ask for assistance from heaven to enable us to pray with the mental concentration without which our prayers are not a compliment for G’d, but G’d forbid, an insult.”

I do not want to do injury to — or, perhaps, “whitewash” — Kedushat Levi by always leaving out such passages or those that argue from God’s special love of Israel, to the exclusion or denigration of others. But I find them less than helpful.

And a query: Is it helpful, in exploring Torah, to choose the bits from any teacher that further our understanding (at any given time)? Is it necessary to address, with each citation of a particular teacher, aspects of his/her approach that are actively troubling to us?

Any comments would be most welcome to me, and, I’m sure, to others. back

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