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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


Nine months into the war, negotiators from multiple countries sit at the proverbial negotiating table against the backdrop of unexpected political surprises and uncertainty in the US, the UK and France. We don’t know how any of this will play out, but it’s safe to assume that the unusual political events across the globe will play some sort of role in Israel’s fate. As a people who believe that somehow HaShem ultimately orchestrates what goes on in the world through what appears to be a natural course of events, we know that all these events are not coincidental. It may just take some time for us to realize their significance.

There are many different approaches to understand what went wrong in this week’s parasha, when G-d punished Moshe and Aharon saying that they couldn’t lead the Israelites into the Land of Israel. Rabbi Natali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) known by his acronym, Netziv, suggests in his commentary on the Torah, HaAmeik Davar, that we can understand what happened by looking at the bigger picture of what was taking place at the time. The episode begins with Bnei Yisrael complaining about the amenities in the desert — they can’t plant fruit and they can’t attain water. This is an unusual complaint given that they were in the desert for forty years and they always understood that desert life would be different. They never complained about life in the desert previously in this way. Why all of the sudden now?

The Netziv suggests that towards the end of the journey through the desert, HaShem had to prepare Bnei Yisrael for a transition. In the desert, they lived a life of open miracles: there was manna every day to provide food, there was a well to provide water and the clouds of glory provided protection. However, now, they were about to enter Eretz Yisrael and they were going to experience HaShem’s providence differently. It was going to come about through nature. To prepare Bnei Yisrael for this new way of living, HaShem designated this time as a training period, where some of their needs would be provided naturally, including water. This created panic among the people.

Moshe and Aharon were given the following task. They were supposed to gather the people around the rock and show them what to do when there is no water and you are living a natural life. They were supposed to teach them to daven for water, because in Eretz Yisrael, when there is a lack of water, the way to bring about water is through tefillah-prayer. However, since this was a transitional period, HaShem told Moshe to bring his staff. The staff was a backup and if needed, if their tefillot weren’t sufficient, Moshe was going to use the same staff that was used for the miracles he performed in Egypt. The issue was that Moshe lost patience with the people. He got angry at them for complaining and he didn’t give them a chance to daven and he skipped right to using the staff to perform the open miracle.

The idea that tefillah is an important part of living a life naturally is something which we may not always remember, and it certainly needs reinforcement, but it is not a novel idea. The novel idea here is that even as HaShem instructed Moshe and Aharon to teach Bnei Yisrael to daven, He Himself didn’t know whether their tefillot would be effective. The people had free choice and their level of sincerity was up to them. This wasn’t simply going through the motions so that water could be produced through this new mode of providence. It actually required sincere tefillah, and HaShem could not guarantee that result, which is why he told Moshe to take the staff as a backup.

We can look at world events and see how these events can be part of G-d’s plan in some sort of bigger picture. And all of that is true, except that this observation is missing a really important component. We can’t discuss G-d’s involvement without also discussing the role of tefillah. We have been davening now for nine months for the return of the hostages, the refuah shleima of all those injured in war, the protection of our soldiers and a decisive military victory. At this point, it may feel like we are going through the motions or that we have poured out our souls and haven’t seen the results. But tefillah by its nature only works naturally. We can’t expect to recite a formula or hit a rock with a magic staff and expect instant results. It is our collective sincerity that will influence the outcome. When political events take place, we should take it as a sign from HaShem that He is giving us an opportunity to double our efforts in our sincerity and how He will handle world events.