The Talmud ascertains that the formula used for the invitation to recite Grace After Meals as a quorum, the zimun, can serve as a yardstick for measuring wisdom (B. Brachot 50a). Thus a wise person invites his fellow diners to recite Grace by saying in reference to the Almighty: uvetuvo hayinu - "and through whose goodness we live" - since this phrase does not limit the goodness of God. An ignoramus, however, may say umituvo hayinu - "and from whose goodness we live" - since using the term "from" minimizes the measure of divine generosity we enjoy.
One of the talmudic sages pondered this distinction by quoting part of a prayer uttered by King David: And from Your blessing, may the house of Your servant be blessed forever (II Samuel 7:29). It would appear that King David himself had used limiting formula - from Your blessing; could it be that he used wording that the Talmud declared is that of a boor?
The Talmud explains that when we thank the Almighty, we should be expansive in our praise, profusely appreciating the entirety of God's benevolence. Not so when we place our requests before God. As indicated by King David's prayer, our requests should be modest, asking God to grace us with blessing from unlimited divine goodness. As a beggar who does not have the audacity to ask for huge favors, we should humbly beseech God.
The talmudic passage continues with a further verse that at first blush appears to contradict the rule about modest requests: Open your mouth widely, and I - says the Almighty - will fill it (Psalms 81:11). The instruction "open your mouth widely" is understood to mean that we should request all that we desire, an apparent contradiction to the requirement of modest requests, as suggested by the prayer of King David.
The Talmud explains that this latter verse refers to the words of Torah. Indeed when asking God for physical well-being our requests should be modest. Not so when we ask the Almighty for Torah: For spiritual pursuits, we may ask for bountiful blessing.
In truth, we have biblical precedents for not limiting our requests of the Almighty when it comes to the spiritual realm. After Moses was banned from entering the Promised Land, he repeatedly beseeched the Almighty to revoke the decree (see Deuteronomy 3:23-25). One of the talmudic sages asked: Why did Moses so desperately desire to enter the Land of Israel? Did he need to eat the fruit of the land? Did he need to sate himself with the bounty of the land? Undoubtedly it was not for these physical benefits that Moses sought to enter Eretz Yisrael. Rather, Moses said to himself: There are many mitzvot that the Jewish people have been commanded that can only be fulfilled in the Land of Israel; let me enter the land so that I will have the opportunity to fulfill those commandments (B. Sota 14a). Indeed, of the 613 commandments only 270 - the numerical value of the Hebrew word ra (evil) - can be fulfilled in the Diaspora; the remaining 343 mitzvot - the numerical value of the Hebrew word geshem (rain) - apply only in the Land of Israel.
Alas, as we know, Moses's request to enter the Land of Israel and have the opportunity to fulfill more mitzvot was not granted. Not all such requests, however, were rejected.
When the first commemoration of the Exodus approached, some of the Jews wandering in the desert were ineligible to offer the Pessah sacrifice. Everyone else took part in this festival except for those who were ritually impure on account of coming in contact with the body of a deceased person.
Our sages discuss why these people were ritually impure; didn't they know that Pessah was approaching and their ritual impurity would render them ineligible to partake in the festivities? Our sages offer three suggestions for the source of the ritual impurity: First, these were the pallbearers who were carrying the coffin of Joseph from Egypt to the Promised Land. A second suggests identifies the ritually impure as the two sons of Aaron, Mishael and Elzaphan, who had just recently buried their brothers Nadab and Abihu. A third approach does not identify the ritually impure or the deceased as any known personalities, they were merely people who had performed the mitzva of burying the deceased (Sifri, Beha'alotcha 10). As one medieval commentator explained: With such a large population wandering through the desert, it would be nigh impossible for a day to go by without someone dying (Ibn Ezra, 12th century, Spain).
All these reasons have a common theme: Those who were ritually impure were not culpable for their state and therefore could be excused for missing the Paschal sacrifice. Indeed, elsewhere the Talmud discusses this case in the context of the principle that one who is involved in performing a mitzva is exempt from the obligation to perform other mitzvot (B. Succa 25a-b). Nevertheless, these people came to Moses and in no uncertain terms said (Numbers 9:7): Why should we be disadvantaged in that we cannot bring the sacrifice of God at its appropriate time together with the Children of Israel!?
Moses turned to the Almighty who instituted a new law, the law of Pessah Sheni: Exactly one month after Pessah, there is a second opportunity to offer the Paschal sacrifice specifically for those who were ritually impure or too far away to be part of the Pessah festivities.
The opportunity of Pessah Sheni is a unique and fascinating law; it is the only mitzva in the Torah that was borne from the demand of the people. Thanks to those who "opened their mouth wide" - to borrow the phrase from Psalms - Pessah Sheni was instituted for generations to come.
Normally, the requests for blessing that we submit to God should be modest. Not so with regards to spiritual pursuits - Torah and mitzvot: When asking the Almighty for spiritual sustenance it is appropriate to ask for our heart's desires; the more we ask for, the more we may just get.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.