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B'Midbar/Numbers 12:13 And Moshe cried out to Adonai to say, "G-d, please, heal her, now."
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Moshe, Aharon and Miriam have been called out to the Tent of Meeting to deal with a spat between the Israelite leadership. Moshe's brother and sister have been muttering about him behind his back andHaShem knows that this must be resolved so that the leadership can stay strong and united. After speaking directly to them, Miriam is afflicted with tzara'at as a visible sign of HaShem's displeasure, but that creates a problem. Aharon asks Moshe to pray for Miriam, that she may be healed - and surely this is part of the reconciliation process: Moshe must pray for those who have been speaking against him as a sign of forgiveness - but why does the text use the verb - Qal, prefix, 3ms, vav-conversive, from the root , to cry out, especially for help (Davidson) - at this point rather than one of the speech verbs: speak, ask, or even pray?
Moshe and Aharon have a problem. Although Miriam has been afflicted with tzara'at, she can neither be formally declared a metzora1, nor formally pronounced clean again, because those ritual functions could only be carried out by a cohen - a priest - and there were only three priests: Aharon and his two sons Elazar and Ithamar, all of whom were disqualified from examining her or making the pronouncement because they are close family: brother/sister, nephew/aunt. Unless HaShem removes the tzara'at now, people will see the affliction, isolate Miriam and wait for a declaration of purity which can never come. Without a divine intervention, Miriam has become locked into an halachic no-mans's land with no way to move forward or backward.
Rashi explains that the purpose of this verse is to teach us proper conduct in prayer. Just as "one who asks for something from his fellow man must say two or three words of supplication and afterwards, present his requests", so Moshe precedes his request with the words - G-d, please. The particle has two distinct meanings. The first is "please, I pray you" and has a softening effect upon requests and orders, many of which are given using the imperative voice. The second is "now" and has the opposite effect of the first, to sharpen an order by giving an immediate time window to its execution. Here we have the particle twice in the same verse, as part of the supplicatory introduction and as an expression of urgency attached to the request itself.
Jacob Milgrom points out that the structure of Moshe's prayer is a "near perfect introversion", A-B-X-B'-A'. The key word , "heal" is the pivotal centre, B and B' are identical (, see above) and A-A' are monosyllables consisting of the same voiced consonant, . The structure acts like a funnel or lens to focus attention on the keyword and gives the prayer its force; it allows it to be brief - thus avoiding any accusation that Moshe showed favouritism by praying longer for his sister than for other Israelites - while maximising its effectiveness. HaShem did, after all, reply immediately and resolve the situation. The Torah preserves Moshe's prayer as an example of how to pray and G-d's intervention to answer his prayer.
By Second Temple times, prayer had often become something of an art form. Formal liturgy was used in the Temple service itself and had been in use in synagogues since the time of the Babylonian Exile. The gospels contain comments about religious people and leaders who would make long prayers in public, sometimes on the street corners, in order to be seen and thought righteous (Matthew, 6:5, Mark 12:40). The Jewish writings speak of seven different types of Pharisees, including the shikmi Pharisee who performs the actions of Shechem2 - that is one who carries his religious duties "on his shoulder", that is, ostentatiously (b. Sotah 22b). Yeshua Himself warned the disciples not to pray in a long-winded way: "when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition, as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words" (Matthew 6:7, NASB). The disciples wondered how they were supposed to pray, so after watching for a while, "One time Yeshua was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of the talmidim said to him, 'Sir, teach us to pray, just as Yochanan taught his talmidim'" (Luke 11:1, CJB). Yeshua replied with a short and concise template - specimen - that the disciples could use: "He said to them, 'When you pray, say: "Father, May Your name be kept holy. May Your Kingdom come. Give us each day the food we need. Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who has wronged us. And do not lead us to hard testing"'" (Luke 11:3-4, CJB).
Yeshua taught the disciples to pray in a direct and straightforward way, knowing that He was also to be the means of the prayer being answered as He is G-d's intervention to solve our problem with sin. His prayer in the Garden on the night that He was arrested was similarly short; urgent and intense certainly, but short on words: "'Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me; still, let not My will but Yours be done' ... in great anguish He prayed more intensely, so that His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:42-44, CJB). Less that twelve hours later, He prayed for those who were crucifying him: "Father, forgive them; they don't understand what they are doing" (Luke 23:24, CJB).
So where do we stand today on our prayer and worship life? Liturgy has an important stabilising and levelling function in many churches and congregations, providing comfort and continuity when individual words don't seem adequate, but can become automatic, recited by rote. Spontaneity is valued in other congregations, as a fresh and alive expression of the Ruach moving among G-d's people, but can also drift into automatic or programmed patterns. Are we prepared not only to pray, but to be a part of the answer that G-d may want to give in response to our prayer? Who are we really praying to or for - to G-d who hears and responds to every prayer, or for other people around us? Even when we pray for other people, it is important to pray to G-d and not just to make other people feel better. Short, direct and simple prayers, spoken in faith, offered as part of our covenant relationship with G-d, are guaranteed an answer. "The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much" (James 5:16, NASB).
1 - a person who has been examined by a cohen and declared impure on the basis of the symptoms of tzara'at.
2 - "of Shechem" relates to the men of Shechem who were circumcised in order to be able to marry the household of Ya'akov (B'resheet 34:20-24), so performed a religious action for a public-relations reason.
Further Study: Psalm 30:2-4(1-3); Jeremiah 17:14; B'resheet 18:23-32
Application: What is your own prayer life like? Do you struggle for words and find it hard to speak frankly and honestly to G-d? Why not try Moshe's model? Keep it short, polite and to the point. Ask G-d Himself to help you pray, then watch Him answer that prayer and so many more.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
Comment - 23May10 04:59 Ray: After reading the second paragraph I see another picture and that is of humanity. The tzara'at is a picture of sin and no man, no matter how pure, can declare a person clean. It can only come from HaShem Himself, through Yeshua.
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