Berakhot 32

Moses' audacious prayer.

Today’s daf continues with the discussions of biblical characters as models for prayer. Yesterday we focused on Hannah and today we turn our attention to Moses.

Much of the discussion centers on Moses’ prayer to God following the sin of the golden calf. The Book of Exodus relates how the Israelites, having been freed from Egypt and brought through the Red Sea, build an idol of gold while Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. God is furious and ready to destroy them. Moses, realizing that the fate of the people lies in his hands, finds the strength to pray on their behalf.

Moses’s prayer is analyzed in detail by the sages. Part of what is amazing about it is how many strategies he employs to persuade God to have mercy on the Israelites. His multi-pronged approach appeals to God psychologically — pointing out that by destroying the Israelites God will become open to embarrassment before the Egyptians and charges of hypocrisy:

“Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand. Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people. Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.” (Exodus 32:11-13)

The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the incredible bravery and chutzpah it must have taken Moses to face the all-powerful Creator who had just redeemed the Israelites from slavery and provocatively invoke God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to make their offspring as numerous as the stars in heaven. His warning that if the Jews are destroyed, the Egyptians will conclude God is evil for taking them out of slavery only to kill them in the desert is nothing short of audacious. But it works — God eventually relents. The rabbis imagine what this feat must have taken out of Moses:

Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: Moses stood in prayer until he was overcome by ahilu (אחילו). The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of ahilu? Rabbi Elazar said that ahilu is fire in the bones…in other words, a fever.

According to the rabbis, Moses literally beseeched God until he was sick.

Perhaps what is most foundational to the Talmud’s close reading of Moses’ prayer is the idea that prayer is a conversation, sometimes an intense one. It can involve a wide range of emotions and can be either a long journey with wild twists and turns or it can be brief and powerful.

The Talmud concludes that we too can learn from Moses’ courage and tenacity, with this pearl of wisdom:

Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: A person who prayed and saw that he was not answered should pray again, as it is stated: Hope in the Lord, strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord. (Psalms 27:14)

Our sages knew that prayer can be challenging. Today’s daf teaches us that we have many models and many ways. When one prayer doesn’t seem to answer the questions of your heart, try a different one and see what emerges.

Read all of Berakhot 32 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 4, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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