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After Moses' prayer on the Israelites behalf following the incident of the spies' report:
G-d said: 'I have forgiven, as you have spoken'. (14:20
After the Israelites' aberration with the spies, culminating in their getting ready to return to Egypt under a new leader, and preparing to stone their opponents to death, G-d declares to Moses that this time He will 'strike them with the plague and annihilate them' and make Moses himself into a 'greater and more powerful nation than they'. (14:12) Moses pleads successfully on their behalf, and G-d takes heed, even though 'they had tested Me for the tenth time; they would not obey Me'. (14:22) Which special qualities in Moses' prayer persuaded G-d 'who neither shows favor nor takes a bribe' (Deut. 10:17) to give the Israelites another chance?
Moses opens with a similar prayer to that after the sin of the golden calf: other nations will think G-d lacks substance if He cannot bring His People to the Promised Land. But then, his prayer divides into two parts:
He firstly made use of the prayer G-d taught him at Mount Sinai following the sin of the golden calf - the thirteen attributes of G-d's Mercy. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) brings the tradition: 'Whenever Israel sins, let them say before Me this order of prayer, and I will forgive then'.
But Moses put thought into the prayer. As Rabbeinu Bachya points out, he did not repeat it word for word. He only selected the attributes of mercy that could be appealed to in this specific situation - the sin of the spies. Thus for example, Moses missed out: 'G-d, Compassionate and Gracious' which apply to complete forgiveness of a repentant sinner. Moses knew that was not relevant here as the people did not regret their rebellion. He could only ask G-d to temper His judgment with mercy, speaking of G-d who 'pardons intentional sin done intentionally (avon) and out of spite (pesha)', but not 'unintentionally (chata-a)', because the sin of the spies had been committed intentionally. (The explanations of these words follow Rabbeinu Tam - Rosh Hashanah 17a, s.v. shlosh esreh).
He also ended his prayer with originality; something from himself, not 'copied' from G-d. He did not just rely on saying what G-d taught him to suit the situation, but put in something of his own: 'Forgive now the iniquity (avon) of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness, as you have borne this people from Egypt until now'. Thus Moses asks G-d to take a wider view. Even though the Israelites sinned intentionally with the spies, he implies that that the panic and herd instinct in crowds was also 'unintentional'. They were gut reactions to the moment, rather than coldly planned non-cooperation and disobedience.
It was that combination of the seder tefilla - the traditional (in this case, G-d taught) order of prayer, the sensitivity to its meaning to adapt it to the situation, and the originality of thought that Moses added to it (something to be remembered when we pray three times daily) that caused G-d to change His mind and reply: salachti kidvarecha, which may also be rendered: 'I have forgiven because of what you have said'.
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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