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Posted on January 13, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

The people contended with Moshe, and said, “Give us water so that we may drink.” Moshe said to them, “Why do you contend with me? Why are you testing Hashem?”[2]

Testing Hashem? How is that implied in their simple – and not entirely unreasonable – request for water?

On the surface of things, this looks like one of the many places where people say one thing, but the Torah discerns their real intention, whether conscious or not. Behind their request was some sort of testing of Hashem. Rashi explains that they were testing Hashem’s ability to provide water in an arid land where none could humanly be found.

Ramban[3] finds a different nuance in a pasuk in Devarim: “Do not test Hashem your G-d, as you tested Him at Masoh.” Ramban sees them testing “whether Hashem was to be found in their midst.”

Now, tefillah – even petitionary prayer, in which we ask for things we want – is certainly a good thing. It is one of the pillars of our Torah life. A person should always, always pour out his heart to a listening Hashem, and speak to Him about his needs, and the straits he finds himself in. The nature of this conversation changes entirely when a person asks for things, as if informing Hashem that he should really be entitled to a favorable response. Such a person hangs his entitlement on a peg of his record of mitzvah performance. He distorts thereby the legitimate nature of prayer. Moreover, he betrays a weakness in his avodah. It remains – consciously or otherwise – always contingent on Hashem’s performance. If G-d delivers for him, then he remains loyal and steadfast. But if He does not, his commitment will slacken. His service is never unequivocal; his status as an eved Hashem is always revocable and enmeshed in doubt.

To Ramban, the passage in Devarim cannot refer to testing Hashem’s ability to miraculously provide water. The people were well past that. At the Reed Sea, they already saw Hashem’s Great Hand, and fully believed in Him and what He can do. Rather, the test was whether He would always be among them to provide them with what they wanted. The people wanted, on some level, proof that He would give them what they thought they rightfully deserved. Without that, their avodah remained iffy.

There is no place for contingent avodah for Klal Yisrael. (There is a place for it for non-Jews. Shlomo HaMelech in fact davened that Hashem should listen to the prayers that they brought to his new Beis HaMikdosh, and grant their requests whether they deserved them or not![4] He knew that if their prayers were not answered according to their expectations, they would harbor complaints against G-d.[5])

It is not that bakashah/requests are intrinsically illegitimate. The undergirding attitude determines whether it is a positive or negative thing. Jewish prayer is not contingent upon results, and makes no demands. At its core, the Jewish request is a bakashas rachamim, and nothing more. It is pure avodah, the unburdening of a son’s feelings to his loving father. It presumes no entitlement. What it asks is that Hashem employ His characteristic of Divine Compassion.

Rashi clearly differs with Ramban. His argument is that there had to be, in fact, an element of disbelief involved. Since their request was not in synch with true tefillah, it should have been unnecessary, following a line of reasoning that plagues many people. If G-d knows of a human need, what purpose is served in telling Him about it? He will either chose to address that need, or He won’t. Telling Him is not going to change anything! For them to ask for water despite this implies that they did entertain some doubts about His ability.

This should serve as a reality check to us, reminding us of the proper attitude during davening. We are not demanding or negotiating. Rather, we bring our wounds and deficiencies to Hashem, as children of a Loving Father. It is not about the expectation of the solution for which we wish. It is about sharing our hearts.

  1. Based on Daas Torah by Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, Shemos, pgs. 148-149
  2. Shemos 17:2-3
  3. Devarim 6:17
  4. Melachim1 8:43.
  5. See Rashi, Bereishis 27:28