וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־יְיָ בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖יא – I was pleading with God at that time…
That sentence always struck me as very personal. Its first word gives the Parasha its name, which is the only one spoken in first person (VaEra is a quote of God addressing Moshe). Those few words are heartbreaking because we have learned to know Moshe as a brave and determined leader, who faces and overcomes many obstacles and opponents. Moshe does not hesitate to refuse God’s appointment, to criticize God after his first failed mission to Pharaoh. He argues with God and even threatens to quit his position and to have his name erased from the Torah if God does not except his ultimatum and forgive the sin of the Israelites. Yet now we see Moshe pleading with God, begging not for his life but rather to just be allowed to cross the Jordan to the Promised Land. And his request is denied. Moshe feels that God is angry with him, punishing him for the subordination of the people, but there is no way he can change God’s mind this time.
I believe many of us identify with Moshe because we have done the same. We have pleaded with God. Begging and asking for mercy, hoping for Him to change His mind or change the situation, and feeling desperate and frustrated when we were turned down. One Midrashic source (אוצר מדרשים) draws a dramatic and extreme picture of Moshe pleading with God:
כיון שראה משה שנחתם עליו גזר דין מיד קבל עליו תענית. עג עוגה ועמד בתוכה ואמר איני זז מכאן עד שתבטל הגזרה… לבש שק ואפר והתפלש בעפר ועמד בתפלה לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא והתחנן לפניו תקט”ו פעמים שנא’ ואתחנן
When Moshe realized that his verdict was sealed, he declared a personal fast [or a hunger strike]. He drew a circle [in the desert’s sand] around him and said [to God] I will not move from here until You nullify the decree… he wore sackcloth and ashes, rolled in the dust, and pleaded with God five hundred and fifteen times, as it is written ואתחנן [the numerical value of which is 515].
For many years I thought that this was a bit of an exaggeration. While I could imagine Moshe’s emotion and his interaction with God, I felt that five hundred and fifteen prayers might be a bit too much. But as I have been recently reflecting on Tefila and focusing on personal experience I realized that this idea is not farfetched. My memories take me to one dreadful night when I was maybe eleven or twelve years old.
I woke up around midnight, startled by the wailings of my older sisters. I was upset that they are making such a ruckus and not letting me sleep, until I was able to make through their broken voices the horrible news. My cousin Yehoshua, who was a year younger me, who was scheduled for anesthesia and surgery that evening, never woke up. I was in shock and, now I know, in denial, and tried to roll to the other side and fall asleep again as if nothing happened, but as much as I tried, I was not able to erase my memory or to alter reality.
Yehoshua Ftaya, named after our shared great-great-grandfather, was my very close friend. He was the firstborn and I was the youngest of five, so in a way, I became his older brother. We would spend hours playing with his huge toy car collection or the Israeli game Five Stones. We would walk together to school and he would listen to the fantastic tales I invented. He especially loved the ones featuring a giant dog, whom we called כלבי – Kalbi [I didn’t know Clifford back then], who would rescue those in need and fight evil all over the world. His father, my uncle Carmi, loved quizzing us on Torah and Tanakh, and we would compete to see who can song on a higher note Iraqi liturgy, especially the last stanza of עוקד והנעקד והמזבח, a poem about the Akedah, the binding of Yitzhak, in which his brother Yinon’s name was mentioned. Losing Yehoshua so suddenly and inexplicably tore away parts of my life I would never be able to recover. I remember the guilt I felt at my Bar Mitzvah as I was thinking of his parents who would never see their Yehoshua celebrating his Bar Mitzvah.
That year was also the year I prayed 515 prayers, or maybe more. It was the year I started paying attention, for the first time in my life, to the second blessing of the Amidah:
אתה גבור לעולם ה’, מחיה מתים אתה רב להושיע… מחיה מתים ברחמים רבים… מקיים אמונתו לישני עפר… מלך ממית ומחיה ומצמיח ישועה. ונאמן אתה להחיות מתים ברוך אתה ה’ מחיה המתים
You are mighty for eternity, God. You revive the dead, O mighty redeemer… You revive the dead with great mercy… You keep Your promise to those slumbering in the dust… O King who brings death and life and who springs forth redemption. We trust that You will revive the dead. Barukh Ata HaShem, who revives the dead.
The promise that God will revive the dead is mentioned in this blessing six times. I have been saying it for a while and maybe started understanding it when I was seven or eight, but the words seemed archaic and almost meaningless. It was only after Yehoshua died that I really connected to the words. I also saw his name יהושע in the words להושיע and ישועה, especially since our ancestor’s name was ישועה. When I realized that this blessing might be the key for bringing Yehoshua back from the dead I started reciting it with great fervor, and not only during the Shiva or Sheloshim. I remember clearly walking down the narrow alley od Shadal street in Jerusalem, coming back from my grandfather’s synagogue, thinking about the words of the blessing, and pleading with God.
I pleaded with Him in every prayer, and in between prayers. I told him that I am devastated by Yehoshua’s death and that surely He did not consider how this would affect me. I know it sounds selfish, but I felt that was my leverage with God. Yehoshua has already passed away but I was alive and suffering, and I was telling God that of He was waiting for a worthy opportunity to show His amazing might, to fulfill His promise, to show me that I can trust Him, to raise His mighty right arm and declare the all those who died are going to spring back to life, now is the time. I asked God to listen to me and I believe I did it more than 515 times that year.
Do I have to tell you whether my request was granted? You already know the answer.
Were my prayers worth it? They helped me cope with a very difficult period on my life. I still cannot understand why God did not intervene to save Yehoshua, and I cannot fathom the sorrow that his parents and siblings still feel, but during that year of prayers I slowly learned to adjust to reality. I have learned to pay more attention to what is happening around me, and to understand other people’s difficulties and challenges. It drove me to fight for a better world and to realize that when I plead with God I am actually making a commitment to be the best person I can be. It did not work for Moshe at the end of his journey, and I would have loved for the Torah to end on a happy note and to see Moshe crossing the Jordan, taking a moment to drink in the beauty of the Promised Land and of his personal great achievement, and then rest in peace.
God tells us the story through Moshe’s lenses, and maybe He sends us a message. We all struggle with tragedies and losses, and we most probably do not agree with what is happening, but we should not give up. We can shut down and accept the verdict without questions, or walk away from faith, but God is pleading with us to argue and plead. He doesn’t need it, but we do. He might not answer our call, at least not in a way we can intercept, but we will.