The newly-freed slaves found it difficult to adjust to the harsh realities of life in the wilderness:
“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 Moses’ prayers. But the Sages wrote that Moses spoke out forcefully in defense of the people. In fact, the Talmud suggests that Moses’ prayers were valiant, even bold. Moses didn’t pray to God — he prayed, as it were, “against God” (Berachot 32a).
Rav Kook noted that the Torah rarely uses the expression “to pray to God.” Often, the Torah simply states that a person “prayed.” It is understood that prayer is directed towards God.
Yet there is an additional reason why the phrase “to pray to God” is surprising. The Hebrew verb לְהִתְפַּלֵּל (“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 we have directed our heart and mind to contemplate God in prayer. As the Sages taught: “Be aware before Whom you are standing in prayer.”
However, it is unrealistic to speak about praying “to God.” The clarity of enlightenment attainable by intellectual inquiry and contemplation 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 defied the natural limitations of prayer. This explanation is reinforced by a literal reading of the Midrash, which says that Moses hurled words towards Heaven. This projects the imagery of a person who forcefully heaves an object upwards, fighting against the laws of gravity, as he throws an object higher than he can reach.
What enabled Moses to attain such a remarkable level of prayer? His lofty soul flowed with such passionate yearning to perfection that his prayer was able to surpass his intellectual grasp of God’s providence of the universe. This unusual phenomenon sometimes occurs with spiritual giants — a testimony to the purity of their inner longings for good and perfection.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 140)