In the final verses of Parashat Beha’alotekha we read that Miriam was stricken with tzara’at as a punishment for speaking disparagingly about her brother, Moshe. Moshe offered a brief prayer for his sister, pleading with God to cure her (12:13).
Rashi, citing the Sifrei, comments, “Why did Moshe not prolong his prayer? So that Yisrael would not say: Our sister is in trouble, and he stands and indulges in prayer?!” According to the Sifrei, Moshe would have offered a lengthy prayer for Miriam, but he shortened his prayer so as not to appear apathetic to her plight.
The obvious question arises, why would a lengthy prayer bespeak indifference? To the contrary, wouldn’t Moshe have shown greater concern for Miriam’s plight by prolonging his prayer? How could a lengthy prayer session possibly be interpreted as a sign of disinterest in his sister’s condition?
Several different answers have been offered to this question. Ketav Sofer suggests that ideally, one should pray briefly and with intense emotion and concentration. Prolonging prayer is necessary only if one is not emotionally invested. God compassionately accepts even prayers recited with little emotion and concentration, but this requires a lengthy prayer. And thus if Moshe had prolonged his prayer, the people would have concluded that he needed to recite a long prayer because he did not truly feel his sister’s pain, and thus a short prayer would not suffice. To avoid this misconception, Moshe prayed very briefly.
This answer, however, seems difficult to understand, as the Sifrei clearly implies that Moshe would have recited a lengthy prayer if not for his fear of appearing indifferent to his sister’s condition. According to Ketav Sofer’s line of reasoning, there should have been no reason for Moshe to even consider reciting a lengthy prayer, as he was, presumably, fully capable of praying with intense feeling and concentration.
Netziv, in his Eimek Ha-Netziv commentary to the Sifrei, explains the Sifrei’s comments differently. He writes that when somebody prays, it is appropriate to introduce the prayer with words of praise for God before proceeding to submit his request. The protocol of prayer, as we know from the structure of our daily prayer service, requires that we begin with words of praise for God, rather than rushing directly to presenting our requests and asking that our wishes be fulfilled. Therefore, Moshe would have recited a lengthy prayer, with an elaborate introduction. However, he feared that the people might cynically accuse him of indifference by not immediately crying to God to cure Miriam. They would have charged that a lengthy, formal introduction to his request for a cure bespoke a lack of concern and empathy for his sister’s plight, and so Moshe proceeded immediately to his plea for help, without the introductory prayer that would, ideally, have been appropriate.
According to Netziv’s approach, Moshe here needed to consider two conflicting interests: the ideal protocol for prayer, which required a patient, composed, respectful demeanor, and the need to avoid appearing apathetic. Moshe was far from indifferent to his sister’s plight, but he had the strength of character to remain calm and composed despite the pain he felt for Miriam’s condition. Nevertheless, he chose not to project a calm and composed image, and instead, as the Torah tells, he cried out with emotion to God (“Va-yitz’ak Moshe”). Despite his ability to control his emotions, he found it necessary to offer a brief, passionate prayer, putting aside the normally required protocol, for the sake of not appearing indifferent to his sister. Praying calmly, patiently and reverently is normally preferable to an instantaneous outburst of raw emotion, but Moshe felt that the circumstances dictated an outward display of emotion to avoid accusations of apathy.