Adjusting to the harsh realities of life in the wilderness was not easy for the newly-freed slaves.
“The people began to complain.... When God heard, He displayed His anger; God’s fire flared out, consuming the edge of the camp” (Num. 11:1).
The people cried out to Moses for help, and Moses defended them before God. “Moses prayed to God, and the fire died down.”
The Torah does not record the prayers of Moses. But the Sages wrote that Moses spoke out forcefully in defense of the people. In fact, the Talmud suggests that Moses’ prayer was audacious. Moses didn’t pray to God — he prayed 'against' God (Berachot 32a).
Rav Kook noted that the expression “praying to God” is uncommon. Often, the Torah just states, ‘he prayed.’ It is understood that prayer is directed towards God.
Yet there is an additional reason why the phrase ‘to pray to God’ is abnormal. The Hebrew verb lehitpaleil (‘to pray’) is in the reflexive tense. This grammatical form emphasizes the emotional impact of prayer back on the soul. The introspective nature of prayer brings out an outpouring of enlightened emotion within the soul.
It is fitting to speak of praying lifnei Hashem — a prayer which is ‘before God’ or ‘facing God.’ This phrase indicates that one has directed one’s heart and mind to contemplate God in prayer. As the Sages taught: “Know before Whom you are standing in prayer.”
However, it is unrealistic to speak about praying “to God.” The clarity of enlightenment attainable by intellectual study and reflection goes far beyond the emotional inspiration experienced in prayer. To ‘pray to God’ would indicate that one attained a heightened awareness of the Creator, and through concentrated prayer was somehow able to achieve an emotional uplifting of the soul at this lofty cognitive level.
Therefore the Sages emphasized the tremendous struggle in Moses’ extraordinary prayer. It was as if he had prayed ‘against God.’ Moses needed to defy the normal limitations of prayer. This explanation is reinforced by a literal reading of the Midrash, which states that Moses “hurled words towards heaven.” This projects the image of one who forcefully heaves an object upwards, fighting against the laws of gravity, as one throws the object higher than one can reach.
What enabled Moses to attain such a remarkable prayer? His holy soul flowed with such passionate yearnings towards perfection that his inspired prayer was able to surpass his intellectual grasp of Divine providence. This unusual phenomenon sometimes occurs with giants of the spirit — a testimony to the purity of their inner longings for good and perfection.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 140)
Illustration image: Hands in prayer by Otto Greiner, c. 1900