In this portion, Moses presents the People with a jumble of sentiments — from sweeping promises to dire threats — which found their way into prominent roles in our prayers. And, while biblical context often has little to do with the use the siddur makes of the bible’s language, our prayers do reflect this portion’s tangled relationship between the People, God and others.
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.**
“In that small cafe;
The park across the way;
The children’s carousel;
The chestnut trees;
The wishin’ well.
“I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…
I’ll find you
In the morning sun
And when the night is new.
I’ll be looking at the moon,
But I’ll be seeing you.”
The relationship described in the Fain/Kahal song is so strong that it imbues the very landscape with the absent loved one. A similarly powerful relationship between God and the Israelites is described in midrash on the Torah portion Masei, with its 42-stage journey recitation. (Mattot, the penultimate, and Masei, the final portion of Numbers/Bamidbar, are read together in non-leap years.) And in many ways, the siddur is designed to call prayer participants and God to remember “the park across the way,” like the stages of the desert journey, prompting renewed recognition.
In Numbers/Bamidbar 2:1, Moses and Aaron are addressed equally by God: “va-y’daber HASHEM el-moshe v’el-aharon….” They are so addressed 18 times in the Torah. Israel would not have been redeemed without the prayers of both — according to Numbers Rabbah* — which is why the Amidah [standing prayer] (AKA Shemoneh Esrei [“the Eighteen”]) contains 18 blessings. (It’s actually 19 now, with the 19th added later than this commentary.)
There are other explanations for the Eighteen: 18 times in the Torah something is done “as HASHEM has commanded Moses.” God’s name — YHVH — appears 18 times total in the three paragraphs of the Shema. The Rabbis counted 18 vertebrae (all of which should be bent in bowing in the Amidah, BTW). But I’m partial to the “Moses and Aaron addressed equally” explanation.
I believe both personal prayer/meditation and communal prayer are crucial. The Amidah often includes both a silent/private prayer and some portion repeated aloud as a group. (This is less common in Reform congregations.) Most interesting and ultimately most powerful for me is the “hybrid” experience of the (often mumbled) “silent” prayer…
…each person focused on her/his own individual prayer but surrounded by barely audible snatches of fellow pray-ers’ words, or maybe just by the prayer-vibes of others…
Alone/Together in prayer — not unlike Aaron with Moses, I imagine — equally in God’s presence but individuals nonetheless.