Good Judgment – B’ha-alotekha 5784

D'var Torah | Numbers

After his sister, Miriam, is struck down with leprosy, Moses prays on her behalf. It is a prayer consisting of a mere five words in Hebrew (Numbers 12:13). The midrashic collection Sifre (B’ha-alotekha, Piska 105) takes up the question of why Moses’ prayer was so short. The first answer is that it would be unseemly for Moses to offer an extended prayer for his sister. The assumption of the Sifre is that the people Israel would see this is a kind of favoritism, without explaining why this would be inappropriate. (It would seem that offering special prayers for a family member is entirely natural and justifiable.)

The second answer is more compelling but to understand it, readers must first be familiar with Moses’ description of his defense of the people following the sin of the Golden Calf (Deuteronomy 9:18) where he claims that he interceded with God for forty days and forty nights: a remarkably long prayer indeed! Rabbi Eliezer explains that sometimes prayers are appropriately long and sometimes prayers ought to be appropriately short. What determines the length of prayer is good judgment. In his words: “There is a time to shorten and there is a time to lengthen.”

I am reminded of this observation whenever I am sitting in synagogue during a prayer service and wonder what the prayer leader, whether a knowledgeable volunteer or a formally trained cantor, is thinking. There are times when the calendar demands certain additional prayers be recited, and the Torah portion is lengthy, and rabbi spoke longer than usual yet the prayer leader or cantor insists on vocalizing every passage in the prayerbook rather than choose a more peremptory recitation. This was a time to shorten. I am also reminded of times when the cantor finished the Ne’ilah service too early to conclude Yom Kippur. Here was a time when some lengthening was in order.

The lesson here extends to areas beyond prayer. What is often lacking in people is good judgment. Good judgment requires taking a host of factors into consideration and then drawing a conclusion based on thoughtful evaluation. Knowing this truth is predicated on getting things wrong, however. As Will Rogers is reputed to have said: “Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.”

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What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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