Parshas Vaeira (5773)
We find towards the end of this week's Torah portion that Moses has just warned Pharaoh that if he would not let the Jewish people go, G-d would send "hail" to the "chief" -- and to the entire Egyptian populace, as well.
Sure enough, Pharaoh, who is obviously in "de-Nile", refuses to heed Moses' warning, and as a result, hailstones the size of golf balls come crashing down all over the land of Egypt, destroying everything in their path. Pharaoh immediately sends for Moses and asks him to pray to G-d on his behalf, that He stop the terrible plague of hailstones.
Moses responds, "When I leave the city I shall spread out my hands to G-d Ö and the hail will no longer come down ..." (Exodus 9:29). The commentaries explain that Moses went out of the city to pray to G-d for the cessation of the plague.
But here's the question: Why does the Torah use the phrase "spread out my hands" when describing how Moses prayed to G-d? One would think that what Moses did with his hands during the prayer - holding them outstretched towards G-d - is but a minor detail. Yet, from the fact that Moses' prayer is defined in this place as "spreading out the hands heavenward" is an indication that it talks to the essence of what prayer is.
True prayer must be synonymous with "spreading out one's hands toward G-d". Now what can that possibly mean?
OH, I GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HASHEM ...
We find this expression of the outstretched hand in prayer in another place in the Bible. King David writes in Psalm 143 verse 6: "I spread out my hands to You, my soul longs for You like the thirsty land. Selah" The commentaries explain that the outstretched hand that David extends toward Hashem (G-d) is like a helpless pauper beseeching his benefactor for assistance. King David's soul yearns for closeness with G-d, borne of the realization that without Him, we are as helpless as a parched field in desperate need of rain. So he stretches out his hand towards heaven, as a sign that without G-d's assistance, he has nothing to hold and nothing to hold onto.
Prayer is a lot of things - it is a time for introspection and reflection on who we are and what we're doing in this world, it is a way for us to prioritize those aspects of our lives which should be most important, it is an exercise in meditation and connecting with G-d. At its essence, though, it is an emotional bonding with the One whom we would be entirely helpless without. It is an "outstretching of the hands" heavenward, a yearning to be closer to G-d, because we need Him so badly, because we are hopeless and helpless without Him.
So when Pharaoh asks Moses to stop the plague of hailstones, Moses says to him that he has to "spread out his hands to G-d," meaning that without G-d's assistance, he is totally helpless.
A WHOLE LOTTA SHAKIN' GOIN' ON
Did you ever wonder why we have to verbalize our prayers to G-d? Canít G-d read our minds? Can't He pick up what we are thinking about and what we feel we need from Him? So why do have to say all those strange Hebrew words at the synagogue? And did you ever notice that when people pray, they usually find themselves shaking slowly back and forth? (In Yiddish they call it "shuckeling".) What is that all about - wouldn't it be more appropriate to leave the exercising for the gym?
The truth is that real prayer that comes from the heart has to be verbalized, and a person will automatically move to a certain rhythm as he entreats G-d in prayer. When we say the words, instead of merely thinking them, we become more involved and excited, and our whole body gets into the prayer.
And if we can focus during the prayer on the fact that we are so helpless without G-d - which is the essence of prayer - and that we need that connection to Him so much, we will find that our hands will automatically stretch out towards heaven, and our whole body will instinctively sway to the rhythm of what we are feeling inside. And, kids, you can try this at home.
CRYING IS A GOOD THING
If all this sounds kind of weird to you, then let me assure you that I am perfectly sane. But I think that maybe that's all part of the problem today. You see, each and every one of us has a tremendous soul inside us, yearning to express itself, eager to become closer to G-d.
But how often do we get the opportunity to express our emotions these days - even in a non-spiritual venue? How often do we even cry? Crying is a good thing. Once in a while we will see a real tearjerker movie, and, after we cry, we often have a kind of cathartic feeling of release.
But such moments are unfortunately few and far between. We might entertain ourselves - maybe watch the Super Bowl and drink lots of Heineken in the process - but as pleasing as that might be to our physical bodies (if our team wins), our precious souls will have gained nothing from it. Our souls are starving for a genuine emotional experience, and they are not getting any.
I can say for myself, that even many of the "spiritual" experiences that I have are quite lacking in their emotional content. Yes, I pray, and I even "shuckel" - but I don't feel the kind of longing and yearning that my soul wants to feel deep inside. And I know that I am not alone in this. There are so many holy Jews out there who - whether they realize it or not - are just longing to have an intense emotional experience, a chance to express their innermost feelings, and maybe even to have a good cry. But, more often than not, it doesn't happen.
Think about what I am saying for a moment - it is so true - the world we live in has desensitized us and made us indifferent to that most basic need - the need for our innermost soul to express itself emotionally. Maybe what we need is to pray with more song and expression and emotion, and to enjoy a good sing-a-long with real moving Jewish melodies (maybe something along the lines of the music of the late great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach) every so often.
Perhaps we should close our eyes as we pray and sing and try to feel the intense connection to our Creator, the feeling of longing that comes from the realization that "G-d, I am so lost without You, so please, please stay close to me always".