5767 - #32


The dialogue that surrounds Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayer on behalf of his sister Miriam,1 perhaps, presents the clearest understanding of the nature of prayer and God’s involvement in the world. Miriam is in distress and Moshe requests of God to intervene and cure Miriam. God responds by explaining to Moshe why He would not fully answer Moshe’s request; Miriam was still deserving of some level of punishment. This brief dialogue that Moshe and God had in regard to Miriam reflects the true essence of prayer. It is a request of God to which God may respond in numerous ways, just as any human being may respond to a communication in numerous ways. Prayer is not some magic formula that immediately brings a desired result. It is not some mechanism of cause and effect whereby doing a specific act, or reciting a specific passage, will necessarily result in the desired conclusion. Prayer is the point where the individual human will meets the Divine Will. God’s Will is independent. The human may request2 but the decision is God’s. The challenge in our prayer is that, absent prophecy, we do not receive God’s explanations of his responses – but nonetheless He responds. The difficulty is that sometimes the response of His Independent Will, as is pointed out by many, is no.

             The story of Bilaam,3 though, seems to challenge this understanding of prayer and the role of the Divine in this world. Indeed, Bilaam does inform Balak, in such verses as Bamidbar 22:18, that anything that he may do is always subject to the Will of God, yet the entire focus on bracha, blessing, and klalla, curse, seems to present a different impression. Knowing God’s thoughts on the matter, Bilaam still goes with Balak’s men – why? Did he simply wish to maintain a charade for some personal benefit? Bilaam, though, is fully honest with Balak in that he states that he cannot veer from the direction given to him by God. Indeed he blesses Israel, thus further angering Balak. If Bilaam’s intent was to maintain the perception that people had of him, that he has some magical, spiritual power, he really demonstrated otherwise for he showed Balak that he did not control the spiritual forces but rather that God ultimately controlled him. Yet, in the very act of going, Bilaam does seem to demonstrate some power resting in him and in humanity. Why does Hashem instruct Bilaam to give a bracha rather than a klalla? Why would it matter in the face of the Will of God? The story of Bilaam seems to state that words do matter. It seems to state that it was important for Bilaam not to invoke a klalla. It seems to state that it was important for Bilaam to give a bracha. It actually seems to state that there is some level of cause-and-effect in the realm of prayer.

             Throughout the Torah literature, there is much discussion on how din, justice, can co-exist with rachamim, mercy. The two, it would seem, are mutually exclusive. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Da’at Tevunot devotes a good part of his work to this dilemma but, in doing so, he raises the issue to a different level. He explains that din is the realm of human cause-and-effect whereby God has created, in this world, direct consequences of human behaviour. He further explains that the realm of rachamim is really the essential realm of the Will of God whereby what transpires is the direct result of this Independent Will unaffected by human behaviour. As the essential Will of God is tov u’meitiv, Good and Giver of Good, this is deemed to be a reflection of mercy in the eyes of the human being. According to this, the conflict between din and rachamim is thus the conflict between a world operating on human cause-and-effect and a world operating on the Independent Divine Will. The two would seem to be mutually exclusive.

             Prayer, within this perspective, would seem to be the human request from God to override the realm of din, to not allow the consequences of cause-and-effect to occur and simply to act pursuant to His Will. God’s response to Moshe’s prayer is thus most telling. The realm of cause-and-effect has purpose and reason. Miriam must face the consequences of her actions, for her and as a lesson for others. God has created, ultimately for our benefit, a world of cause-and-effect which He can still override if He so chooses. Through prayer, we are able to request of Him to apply rachamim and override this realm, acting solely pursuant to His Independent Will. At times God responds in the positive; sadly, at times, in the negative. The human being is thus left with the dual task of both responding to the realm of cause-and-effect and the realm of prayer.

             Bilaam, though, recognized a greater complexity in this model which he wished to use to his advantage. Cause-and-effect has many dimensions. The term is usually applied to the world of nature but that is too limiting. In recognizing that this term applies to din, one should also recognize that it is one of the dimensions of the moral universe as well. The further complexity, though, that Bilaam recognized is that it also is one of the dimensions of prayer itself.4 The realm of din defines what is proper for the human being. One of these proper goals is prayer. As such, prayer also must work, at least on some level, in the realm of cause-and-effect. Bilaam knew this in the same way that he knew that attempting to cause Bnai Yisrael to sin must necessarily cause God to lessen His Protection of Israel through the process of din.5 As such Bilaam knew that, notwithstanding the reality that the Independent Will of God wished nothing but good for Israel, in creating a realm of prayer within a world of cause-and-effect, the words of prayer itself must have some consequence. Prayer is, as Moshe recognized, a human request from the Independent Will of God to intervene in the world. This, indeed, is the prominent aspect of prayer. As din and rachamim, though, co-exist in this world, prayer must also have a dimension of din; there must be a level of consequence to the saying of these words. Bilaam’s words would be a factor in the movement of the world; God, as such, warned him that his words must be words of blessing.

             Herein, though, lays one of the great challenges of existence. God has built into existence a realm of spiritual cause-and-effect. This realm must be distinguished from the true realm of the Divine. In the extreme, even a Bilaam can tap into this spiritual realm and thereby mislead people away from God. Our focus must be on the true Divine realm and set as our standard the prayer of Moshe Rabbeinu who humbly requested of the Independent Will of God, able to say no.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 See Bamidbar 12:13.

2 The idea that God can be approached in prayer should not be taken lightly or seen as a simple given. See Ramban’s Commentary to Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 5.

3 See Bamidbar 22:2-24:25.

4 A full discussion of the relationship between din and rachamim is beyond the scope of this Insight but it should be recognized that the two categories also overlap in that it is the Independent Will of God that created the realm of cause-and-effect and one of the demands in the realm of cause-and-effect is to form a connection with God.

5 See Rashi, Bamidbar 25:1


Nishma, 2007

Return to top