World of the Sages: Filing claims against the Almighty

The Jewish people complained against God and a heavenly fire descended, burning at the edge of the camp.

The Talmud relates that three heroes of Jewish history filed claims against the Almighty (B. Berachot 31b-32a). The first is Hannah, who in her fervent prayers to God for a child flung harsh words heavenward. This is derived from the biblical passage which describes her supplication without using the usual preposition of praying to the Almighty: And she prayed against (al) God (I Samuel 1:10). Hannah's prayer came from a place of anguish; should she be accused of contemptuously turning to the Almighty? The commentators explain that though her prayers were undoubtedly heartfelt, they should have been formulated respectfully rather than flung at the Almighty (Rashba, 13th century, Barcelona). The second person accused of improper prayer is Elijah the prophet. In his day many of the Jewish people had turned to Baal worship. A test was organized on Mount Carmel between the followers of Baal and the prophets of the Almighty whereby each group would attempt to offer a bull sacrifice without fire. The custodian of the true belief would be the party whose offering was accepted by heavenly flames. With the eyes of Israel focused on this trial, the Baal faction was first and, despite its cries, no fire descended. It was then Elijah's opportunity, and he turned heavenward with a simple prayer whose opening words would become a staple of our liturgy: Answer me, God, answer me, and let the people know that You are the God Almighty and it is You who has turned their hearts backward (I Kings 18:37). With these last words, Elijah appeared to be accusing the Almighty of being the cause of the people's improper behavior, implying that God should have directed the people's hearts (Rashi, 11th century, France) or at least not prevented them from repenting (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo). The third personality who flung words against the Almighty was Moses, though it is unclear where this happened. The Jewish people complained against God and a heavenly fire descended, burning at the edge of the camp. And the people came crying to Moses and Moses prayed to God and the fire died down (Numbers 11:2). While the appropriate preposition is used here - Moses prayed to the Almighty - one school of exegesis would expound verses by interchanging the silent alef with the guttural ayin since many people - including the majority of modern Hebrew speakers today - do not differentiate between these two letters. Thus the verse could be read as Moses praying against (al) instead of to (el) the Almighty. According to one commentator this unflattering reading of the biblical text is derived from the fact that the content of Moses's prayer is curiously not revealed (Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, 18th century, Poland-Prague). Another opinion in the Talmud cites a different episode in which Moses contemptuously turned to God. The final book of the Torah opens with a description of the location in which Moses gave his farewell talks to the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 1:1). The last place mentioned is di-zahav and our sages interpret this as a reference to the golden calf. At this episode Moses turned accusingly to God with the claim that the Almighty brought about the making of the golden calf. Thus Moses said: "Master of the universe, because of the silver and gold (zahav) that You lavished upon Israel when they went out of Egypt, until they said 'Enough!' (dai)." With this assertion Moses claimed that God ought to show clemency and not destroy them for their sin. What is the upshot of these paradigms? In two of the cases - Elijah and Moses - our sages present biblical support to indicate that God later concurred with their prayers. Our sages are silent about the case of Hannah and no such justification is offered. Nevertheless, we may suggest that her claims were also accepted as she was granted a child - the famed prophet Samuel. Moreover, Hannah did not receive punishment for her contemptuous prayer. Can we conclude that flinging words against the Almighty is a possible approach to prayer? Do we have here a endorsed mode of prayer? Rereading the talmudic passage, God's consent is presented as ex post facto authorization rather than ex ante approval. Thus our sages are hardly suggesting that this is a recommended course of prayer. On the other hand, certain hassidic masters were famed for calling God to trial, none more so than the beloved Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1810), often called the defender of Israel for his willingness and audacity to plead for Israel. According to one tradition, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak would frankly converse with the Almighty on Rosh Hashana after kiddush: "Master of the universe, all the wealth granted to the Jewish people is spent for You. A Jew who has plenty spends more on Torah study, makes a finer Shabbat and contributes generously to charity. Why then do You not repay the kindness and deliver Your people?" In another episode, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak hesitated before sounding the shofar and turned heavenward: "Do You think I will sound the shofar before You this year? Let the evil forces to whom You have given power against us sound it. Yet I, who eternally love You, will bend my will and sound it. So You should bend Your will and forgive Israel." Which course, therefore, is endorsed for prayer: A bold, candid and somewhat impudent dialogue with God or a reverent and respectful offering of supplications before the Almighty? Perhaps we have two different paradigmatic relationships with God. Those who relate to the Almighty with the appropriate veneration and awe would never entertain contemptuously flinging words heavenward. Yet there are those who feel so close to God - like Hannah, Elijah, Moses, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and others - that they irreverently file claims against the Almighty. They are like children arguing with a parent. The child may be disrespectful and the parent may rightly rebuke the child, but the overwhelming feeling is one of love and the parent still heeds the claims of the child. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.