A Short Prayer Can Be More Powerful, Meaningful, and Successful Than Texts with Hundreds of Words
by Rabbi Daniela Szuster
At the end of Parashat Behaalotcha, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because he married a Cushite woman. Also, they criticized Moses by saying that God spoke to them and not only to Moses. (Bemidvar 12).
It is not clear what was the motivation behind Miriam and Aaron’s actions. Rashi imagines Miriam criticizing Moses for neglecting his wife in order to serve the people of Israel. In Rashi’s view, Miriam was motivated more by her concerns for the Moses’ wife than by feelings of jealousy and rivalry. In other words, we may say that Miriam wanted to advocate for women’s rights!
Consequently, I think that Miriam and Aaron’s mistake was not what they said but rather how they said it. They spoke against Moses in front of all of the people of Israel rather than confronting him directly. This is a behavior that a leader should avoid. In this way, they harmed Moses and also the people of Israel.
As Rabbi Elazar Ha-Modai states in Pirkei Avot: “A person who shames others publicly, though steeped in learning and the performance of good deeds, shall have no share in the world to come” (Pirkei Avot 3:15).
After this episode, the Torah tells us that God called Miriam, Aaron, and Moses and talked to them. God was angry with Miriam and Aaron because of their actions. After that conversation, the Torah tells us that Miriam was stricken with white scales.
It is very interesting to point out that when Moses saw Miriam in that situation, he cried out to the Lord, saying: “El na refa na la!”, “O God, pray heal her!” (Bemidvar 12:13).
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses. However, when Moses saw that Miriam was sick, he didn’t hesitate to pray to God for her quick recovery. He could have been angry with her, but seeing that she was in a critical situation, he forgave her and tried to help.
There is a very important lesson that we can find in this episode. Sometimes we have disagreements with our brothers and sisters, but when they have problems, we need to put aside our concerns and help them. When Moses saw Miriam he cried out and prayed.
What particular qualities does Moses’ prayer for his sister Miriam have?
First of all, it is a very short prayer. It contains just five words! Why? What does it mean?
There are some sages that think that because of the urgency of the situation, Moses said a brief prayer. He didn’t have time to elaborate on it.
Midrash Sifrei explains that Moses was concerned about what the people of Israel would have said about him if he had prayed a long prayer: “For his sister, he pleads with God at length, but were we in her place, he would offer only a few words”.
Moses’ prayer for Miriam can teach us that brevity and simplicity do not stem from less kavanna (intention) on Moses’ part. On the contrary, sometimes short prayers are among the most beautiful and appropriate supplications. Moses’ five-word petition is a moving plea for Divine healing in a time of great personal and communal crisis.
Many times, we believe that the best essays, speeches, sermons, prayers, and articles are those that are the longest. Maybe the brevity of this prayer teaches us that this statement is not true. A few words can be more powerful, meaningful, and moving, than hundreds of words that sometimes do not convey a strong meaning.
In fact, Moses was a great teacher and leader despite struggling with his speech impediment. He could fashion a very deep prayer with just five words. Also the text tells us that after that prayer, Miriam recovered.
It is interesting to point out that this prayer and its variations are recited daily by rabbis, chaplains, and people yearning for the healing of the body and soul. These poetic words have been used as mantras, set to music, and chanted as liturgies in healing services and in many other settings.
We can learn from this week’s parashah that a leader shouldn’t speak against another leader in public. He or she should confront him or her directly in private.
When our brothers and sisters are in an emergency, we need to put aside our differences in order to help them with all of our hearts and with all of our resources as Moses did with Miriam.
Finally, a few words can be more powerful, meaningful, successful, and moving than texts with hundreds of words.