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Parshas Vaera - Coming Back to Shul                  2 Shvat 5781

01/14/2021 11:17:41 PM


So much has been written and spoken about regarding the raging pandemic throughout ten months of this past year. Looking back, we recognize and mourn the loss of life as the pandemic wreaked havoc across the globe. Our lives were turned upside down and the world retreated. Life as we knew it came to a standstill. Every aspect of our lives changed abruptly from the way we pray, to how we learn, purchase food, travel, socialize. The list goes on and on, yet despite all the negatives there was also good that emerged, thanks to our forced change in behavior. Life tends to be somewhat polarized: when something negative occurs, something positive emerges to counterbalance it. Today, while the Covid-19 pandemic still rages, hope that the vaccine will stem and ultimately defeat its continued spread and devastation is emerging.  Knowledge regarding disease transmission and awareness of the importance of social distancing and wearing of masks is far beyond what was understood ten months ago.

Early on, in the beginning of the lockdown, shuls were forced to close and Tefilla B’Tzibbur- communal prayer- was, for the first time in our lives, totally shut down. Jews across the continents, from young children to Torah scholars, found themselves alone, davening in solitude, separated from minyanim.  Yet, through this isolation, opportunity for self-introspection arose, allowing a deepening appreciation for the quality and beauty of prayer, of how we pray and exploration of the depth and profound meaning of each word. However, while many whom I spoke with expressed appreciation for this opportunity for inner growth, ultimately even that experience eventually grew stale. It is difficult to maintain consistent davening with the intensity and concentration required when davening at home. This is only one of the many reasons we need to go to Shul. We need to be in a place dedicated strictly for prayer where we set a place and time in order to accomplish through being part of a minyan more than we can attain individually.  We need to daven together.

Today, while the Covid-19 pandemic still rages, hope that the vaccine will stem and ultimately defeat its continued spread and devastation is emerging.  People not in high-risk groups are resuming many of their previous activities. Yet, some who do venture out have not yet made that same commitment to returning to shul and to davening with a minyan. While there are still good reasons for some not to come back to daven in shul, it is nevertheless necessary for those not in a high-risk category to make an honest ‘cheshbon’ – calculation – and re-evaluate the importance of attending minyanim. For some, now may just be the time to return to shul, to daven with a minyan. Precautions are taken and accommodations are available to make everyone feel safe and to remain healthy. It is hoped that the rate of transmission will drop as the number of people receiving the vaccine increases.  At a certain point, the absence from Shul and Tefilla B’Tzibbur starts to have a negative effect on a person’s spiritual well-being. The emphasis and importance of Tefilla is highlighted in a most unusual Midrash. 

The Midrash Rabbah 11:1 relates an amazing and scary explanation of the following: The Torah, in this week’s Parsha Vaeira, states in Shmos 8:16 "ויאמר ה' אל משה השכם בבקר והתיצב לפני פרעה הנה יוצא המימה, ואמרת אליו כה אמר ה' שלח עמי ויעבדוני"   “God said to Moshe, ‘get up early in the morning, and confront pharaoh when he goes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Let My people leave and serve me’.”  Rashi explains why Hashem tells Moshe to get up early in the morning: Pharaoh pretended he was a god, and therefore did not need to relieve himself. He secretly tended to his bodily needs and functions early each morning before anyone else was awake. Therefore, Hashem wanted Moshe to show pharaoh he is not a god and told Moshe to go the river earlier than Pharaoh in order to catch him in the act. The Midrash, however, says something quite different than Rashi’s explanation. It says Pharaoh wanted to daven to Hashem. He could not pray in the place since it was full of idols.  Therefore, Pharaoh needed to go to an area that was idol-free to engage with Hashem.

Before we explain this, we need to examine how it come to be that Pharoah wanted to pray. At a certain point pharaoh recognized God’s greatness, raining relentless punishment upon Egypt. Despite the fact that pharaoh rejected Hashem and turned Moshe away, he now experienced second thoughts. Therefore, even the evil pharaoh, who had enslaved and tortured 600,000 Jews, now wanted to daven to Hashem. Hashem would have answered pharaoh’s prayers if he had prayed from the beginning, but he passed up that opportunity to pray at the appropriate time. A good person is always given the opportunity to repent, to get closer to God.  The wicked, on the other hand, also have the same opportunity - with limitations. Based upon a passuk in Iyov 36:13, we learn that after Hashem waits for the wicked to repent, when they do not do so, even if they desire to repent at the end, He takes away, obstructs, their hearts’ desire so that they will not repent. This was precisely the case regarding pharaoh. Initially, he could have allowed the Jews to leave but chose not to do so. When things began to get rough, pharaoh had a change of heart, and this time he sincerely intended to daven to Hashem. Hashem, however, said sorry, too late and arranged for Moshe to intervene, removing the opportunity for Pharaoh to repent and let the Jews go.   

Pharaoh was evil. He did not receive a second chance, unlike others who can always repent.  The mechanism within nature that prevented his second asking was due to Moshe’s intervention. This is the route Hashem chose to deny pharaoh, the rasha, the second chance to repent through prayer. And so, Hashem tells Moshe to get there before Pharaoh arrived to pray because even the tefillos of pharaoh have power! Moshe, fully unaware, is instructed by Hashem to “go out and stand before him”, to cut pharaoh off by arriving at the river before pharaoh had a chance to pray.  Hashem told Moshe, that if he did not do this and pharaoh had the opportunity to pray, it would be too late for the Jewish people.

If the Yetzer Hora/Evil Inclination should come to me and proclaim, ”Who do you think you are? You think you can pray to God?” I would immediately retort, “I know who I am. Perhaps I am not so holy and righteous. Perhaps I can improve. But I am not in in any way a rasha like Pharaoh!” If Pharaoh’s prayers could have stopped Moshe Rabbeinu, then our Tefillos are certainly powerful enough to reach Hashem’s ears. To repeat the words of the Midrash: ‘Pharaoh wanted to pray to Hashem, and Hashem told Moshe before pharaoh could do so to ‘go stand in front of him’. The Midrash says that there some people who are prevented from davening by Hashem. We should not focus on those individuals; we must, instead, remind ourselves before every Shmoneh Esrei/Amidah how much our Tefillos are worth. If the prayers of a rasha/wicked and evil person such as pharaoh are worth something, then our Tefillos are worth a billion times more. In addition to the value of our prayers, we know that Hashem desires our Tefillos. Our prayers bring us closer to Him.

In my humble opinion, it is Shul attendance, participation in davening with a minyan, that keeps us connected, especially during these trying times. It has been too long, and the longer we are away the further we distance ourselves from Hashem. We need everyone’s Tefillos to focus upon and pray for the threat of illness to dissipate.  We need each other to return, to come back before we fall into the trap of the Yetzer Hora thinking that this is the new norm…it is not.

Tue, September 28 2021 22 Tishrei 5782