On the face of it, prayer does not make much sense: We are asking the perfect God to change His course of action. It is one thing if we make some sort of vow and promise something that will change the balance of things that God wants in His world. But most prayer is not like that – we simply ask for something, as if our mere request should change God’s plan. If that were not bad enough, we sometimes explain(?!?) to God why our request would be a good thing – as if He didn’t know every last thing we could possibly tell Him.
And yet in this week’s parsha, not only does God tolerate such a prayer, it appears that He even demands it! Echoing the rabbis, Rashi (32:10) points out how God hints to Moshe that His verdict for the Jewish people depends upon Moshe praying. That God even shares the decree with Moshe indicates His desire for his involvement, similar to what we see with Avraham at Sedom. When Moshe does not respond, God begins a new speech, going so far as to say, “leave Me… and I will destroy them.”
When Moshe gets the rather blatant message, his explanation about why destroying the Jewish people is not a good idea seems to elicit God’s suspension of the decree. But why is this? What does God benefit from Moshe’s prayer? Surely Moshe’s concern for what the Egyptians will say is not something God didn’t already know.
One possible explanation is that prayer is less about changing God than changing ourselves. When Moshe invokes the damage to God’s reputation that could result in carrying out His decree, Moshe fully internalizes what is as stake. True, God could just as easily told Moshe what is at stake here, but he wanted Moshe to realize it on his own. God – like any good teacher – knows that the best learning is what comes from the mouth of the pupil, and not from the mouth of the teacher.
So what is it that Moshe realized was at stake? In a nutshell, God’s miracles in Egypt had not been for the benefit of the Jews alone. Several commentators point out that we see from here that what the Egyptians will say seems to be quite important. Indeed, God Himself had several times previously said that the plagues were in order that the Egyptians become aware of Him. Throughout history, God wants all of mankind to learn the theological and ethical lessons that come out from His existence and His actions. And knowing this part of God’s plan is fundamental for the Jewish people’s self-understanding.
Paradoxically, Moshe and the Jewish people’s internalization of this idea actually benefits them even more than it benefits the gentiles. For once they realize the full importance of their mission, they realize the importance of acting in such a way that will not force God’s hand in a similar fashion in the future. In fact, it is a paradox within a paradox, since the sin of the calf actually ended up strengthening Moshe and the Jewish people with this new consciousness. Had a crisis threatening God’s tolerance of the Jewish people not occurred, Moshe may never have come to the important conclusions that he did.
It behooves us not to wait for a crisis to draw the proper conclusions about our existence. For if we properly understand who we are – or, at least, who we can be – God will have good reason to give us more time and resources with which to accomplish our purpose. The other extreme is people who do not understand their purpose even at a time of crisis. And about that, we must remember Rashi’s classic words about Moshe: the outcome of the crisis is dependent upon your prayer – not because you will change God’s mind, but because you will change who you are.