Yesterday, we discussed a curious passage in the Sifrei, cited by Rashi in his commentary to Parashat Beha’alotekha (12:13), where Chazal note the brevity of Moshe’s prayer on behalf of his sister, Miriam, after she was stricken with tzara’at. The reason Moshe offered such a brief prayer, the Sifrei comments, is out of concern that the people might criticize him for prolonging his prayer, cynically asking, “His sister is in trouble, and he stands and indulges in prayer?!” Several later writers noted the difficulty in the Sifrei’s comment, as to the contrary, a lengthy prayer would, seemingly, demonstrate even greater concern for Miriam. Why was Moshe afraid of being accused of indifference towards his sister for offering a prolonged prayer on her behalf?
Rav Pinchas Shalom Pollak, in his Minchat Marcheshet (Parashat Vayeira), suggests a novel reading of the Sifrei’s comment, distinguishing between situations where a patient needs practical assistance, and other situations. After Miriam was stricken with her illness, there was no practical assistance that could have helped her. As such, the appropriate reaction to her condition was prayer. The people, however, might have mistakenly assumed that Miriam needed her brother’s help, and that Moshe insensitively chose to recite a lengthy prayer rather than give her the help she required. They would then use his example as a precedent to choose prayer over practical assistance when a family member or peer needed help.
Rav Pollak offers this explanation in the context of his discussion of the story told in Sefer Bereishit (chapter 21) of Hagar and Yishmael. We read that as Hagar and Yishmael wandered in the desert, their water supply was depleted, and Yishmael fell ill from dehydration. Hagar moved away from her son and cried, perhaps suggesting that she prayed. The Torah relates (21:17-19) that God heard Yishmael’s prayer, and showed Hagar an oasis from which she drew water to save her son’s life. As many commentators noted, the verse states that God heard Yishmael’s prayer, but not his mother’s. Rav Pollak boldly suggests that Hagar’s prayer was rejected because she should not have been praying at that time. Yishmael needed his mother with him to provide comfort and encouragement, and thus she should not have moved away from him to engage in prayer. This was an occasion that warranted a brief prayer, not a lengthy one. Since Hagar prayed when she should have been tending to her ailing son, her prayer was not accepted.
The message conveyed by this insight is that even something inherently worthwhile and valuable like prayer is unacceptable and wrong when it comes at the expense of something else which ought to be given priority. Torah life entails a wide range of different obligations, and weighing conflicting values and responsibilities against one another can often be a considerable challenge. We must remember that no single value is absolute, and at times we must set aside important religious undertakings to give way for more urgent and pressing obligations.