Moses' intercession on behalf of the Israelites in this week's parshah demonstrates the powerful effects of prayer — on both God and us.
What is the power of prayer? How is it that a few well-placed words to God or an act of contrition can alter one’s apparent destiny?
Torah has many examples of God responding to prayer: Isaac’s prayer on behalf of Rebecca that she conceive; David’s prayer that he be saved from his enemies; Esther’s prayer — conveyed through the act of fasting — that Ahashverus accept her unbidden approach. In each instance, prayer affected the expected outcome. No example is more dramatic than the one found in this week’s parshah, Ki Tisa.
In this parshah, the people had sinned. Fewer than 40 days after experiencing the wonders of revelation at Mount Sinai, the people grew weary of Moses’ absence on the mountain and had Aaron make a golden calf to lead them. Worse, they celebrated it with riotous and immoral partying. Moses, alerted by God to their acts, partly descended the mountain and threw down the tablets he was carrying in anger and despair. God reacted more strongly, proclaiming His intent to destroy the entire nation.
Moses turned to God with a prayer offering three reasons for God to relent. First, God should have mercy on the nation that He had saved from Egypt. Second, the Egyptians would misunderstand God’s intent and feel vindicated if God were to destroy the Jews in the desert. Third, God should remember the divine promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would inherit the land of Israel. As a result, the Torah relates, “And the Lord renounced the punishment he had planned to bring upon His people.”
But how could Moses’ voicing these arguments have made a difference? Certainly the all-knowing God considered them at the time of His decree. Classical Jewish thinkers offered various answers. Nachmanides, in the 14th century, claimed that prayer is a “miracle that results in miracles”; its power is unknowable.
Rabbi Joseph Albo in the 15th century and Harav Kook in the 20th century rejected the idea that prayer is miraculous. Prayer doesn’t change God, they said. Prayer changes the pray-er, the one who experiences the prayer. This experience may be direct — by praying, by an act of contrition like fasting — or by hearing someone else pray on one’s behalf, like the Jews with the golden calf.
Rabbi Albo and Rav Kook differ on the mechanics of how prayer changes the one who prays or the one on whose behalf the prayer is made. Rabbi Albo said the experience of prayer changes a person’s perspective on life, leading him or her to future acts that are good. Rav Kook sees the change as spiritual; prayer leads one to feel closer to God.
In either case, the ones who experience prayer have changed. They have become new people who deserve a new divine judgment. For the Jews who experienced Moses’ prayer on their behalf, the experience led them to reconsider their sin and atone for it. At that point, God’s original decree was outdated and a new decree was required.
The idea that prayer helps the one who prays grow as a human being applies to all Jewish acts. The Torah teaches us about Shabbat, kashruth, social justice, etc., so we will have experiences that allow us to see what else we can do to make a more perfect world.
Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, received his rabbinic ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva.