When Does a Prayer Have a Prayer? by Jeremy Jaffe

(2006/5766) Every time we recite Selichot, the prayers for forgiveness
and mercy that we say before the Yamim Nora’im and on fast days,
we constantly repeat one phrase from Parshat Shelach (14:20):
“Vayomer Hashem Salachti KiDvarecha,” “And Hashem said, ‘I
have forgiven according to your words.’” At first glance, it seems
that we are mentioning a time when Hashem forgave our sins in the
past to beg He repeat this forgiveness for our sins today.  However,
when we look at the situation in Shelach, it is not so clear that this is
the model case of complete forgiveness.  Bnei Yisrael, who had
sinned by believing the spies’ derogatory report about the land of
Israel and refusing to go fight for it, were still punished even after
this “forgiveness” – they were forbidden to enter the land of Israel
(14:23).  Were they really forgiven, as Pasuk 20 states, or were
they not forgiven, as it seems from Pasuk 23?
The Ramban answers that they were partially forgiven for
their sin, in that their children were allowed to inherit the land and
were not annihilated in a plague, as Hashem had threatened earlier
(Pasuk 12).  The reason for this partial forgiveness, claims the
Ramban, is that Moshe Rabbeinu only prayed for them with a
partial prayer.  Moshe did not pray for a full abolishment of their
sins, but rather for Hashem to cleanse them of their sins through a
gradual punishment, instead of wiping them out instantly in His
fury.  Thus, even though the prayer was accepted, their sins
remained, not yet fully erased, until they were punished.  The
Ramban proves this from Moshe’s retelling of the story of the spies
in Perek 1 of Devarim, where he rebukes Bnei Yisrael for fearing to
enter the land, but does not mention his personal prayer that
Hashem forgive them.  This shows that the prayer was not
significant enough to be recounted, as it was only a prayer that
Hashem reduce their punishment, not that He forgive them
completely.  In contrast, Moshe’s prayer regarding the golden calf is
actually recounted elsewhere in Devarim (Perek 9).  Apparently,
Moshe recorded only full-fledged prayers, but not partial ones.
Although this Ramban fits well with the Pesukim and
appears logical, it raises a perplexing question: why would Moshe
Rabbeinu pray for Bnei Yisrael more completely in the episode of
the golden calf than in that of the spies?  To answer this question,
we must first explain the Ramban’s understanding of the sin with
the golden calf.
When Moshe heard that Bnei Yisrael had sinned by
worshipping the calf, he immediately begged Hashem to reconsider
His decision to destroy Bnei Yisrael in anger (Shemot 32:11). 
Though Hashem answered Moshe’s request in the affirmative, He
was merely promising to refrain from lashing out at the nation in
anger, as the Torah writes (32:14), “And Hashem reconsidered
regarding the evil which He had said He would do to His people.” 
He did not, however, fully remove the sin (Ramban to Shemot
32:11).  Later, when Moshe went back up to the mountain to pray
for Bnei Yisrael a second time (32:31), he was asking Hashem to                                         absolve Bnei Yisrael completely of their sin, which explains
why that story is recounted in Devarim.
The strange thing about this request, though, is that
it was never explicitly accepted.  When Moshe pleaded that
Hashem either forgive Bnei Yisrael or erase Moshe’s name
from the Torah (32:32), Hashem merely responded, “[Only]
he who has sinned towards me will have his name removed
from My book” (32:33), implying that Moshe, who did not sin,
would not be punished with having his name removed
(Ramban to Shemot 32:32).  Bnei Yisrael, however, were not
forgiven (at this point of the aftermath of the Cheit HaEigel),
since only the sinner himself can fully repent his actions – no
one, not even Moshe, can repent for the sins of another.
If this is the case, we can now understand why
Moshe did not pray for a full forgiveness at the sin of the
spies.  He already learned from experience with the calf
incident that Hashem would not accept such a prayer. 
Instead, he prayed only that Hashem spread out their
punishment over time, so that they would not be wiped out
immediately.  Moshe knew that Hashem would accept this
prayer, since He had accepted Moshe’s first prayer regarding
the golden calf, in which he had similarly asked that Hashem
refrain from killing Bnei Yisrael instantly.
The problem with this answer is that it assumes that
no one can ever become completely forgiven due to
someone else’s penitence or prayer.  While this assumption
holds true in the incident of the golden calf, it seems to fail in
the book of Iyov.  This book is the story of a very rich, God-
fearing man who, tragically, loses all his money and watches
all his many children die.  In his misery, Iyov starts believing
that he must be more righteous than Hashem, Who appears
to be punishing him for nothing, but his friends, furious at this
suggestion, insist that Hashem must be punishing him for
sinning.  By the end of the book, Iyov finally admits that he
can not complain against Hashem, and Hashem, in turn,
rebukes Iyov’s friends for falsely accusing Iyov of sin instead
of comforting him for his losses.  He commands them to
bring sacrifices, and tells Iyov to pray for them so that He can
refrain from giving them a harsh punishment.  If golden calf
incident teaches us that such a prayer can never be fully
accepted, why is Iyov told to pray for his friends’ forgiveness?
The simplest way to answer this question is to say
that Iyov’s prayer for his friends is not a prayer that Hashem
forgive them completely, but rather a request that he refrain
from punishing them immediately so they will have time to
repent.  This answer would fit well with the current premise
that such a prayer could be accepted.  In addition, the
Tanach does not elaborate on what kind of prayer Iyov
prayed, so it is reasonable to say that it was only a prayer for
forestalling punishment.  If this is the case, however, it would
seem that Iyov’s friends were never actually forgiven
completely.  Although there is nothing in the Pesukim which
contradicts this notion, Rashi (to Iyov 42:8) states that the
sacrifices which Iyov’s friends bring, along with Iyov’s prayer
for them, will be able to bring about forgiveness for their sins
and to permanently prevent Hashem from recalling their
sins.  How does this Rashi jive with our current
understanding that a combination of punishment and prayer
is necessary to achieve forgiveness?
We must therefore say instead that it was the
sacrifices which Iyov’s friends brought which enabled Iyov’s
prayer to be fully accepted by Hashem. Indeed, this concept
appears to be at work in Perek 4 of Vayikra, where the whole
nation, prince and common man, received forgiveness for
their sins as a result of their sacrifices and Aharon’s prayer
for them.  It was only the Kohen who was required to pray to
enable his Korban to effect forgiveness (Ramban to Vayikra
4:11), but the rest of the people’s Korbanot brought

atonement by virtue of the priest’s prayer alone.  Thus, one
person’s prayer can enable the sacrifices of another to achieve
However, the Ramban’s assertion that only the
Kohen had to pray seems to contradict a parenthetical
comment that he quotes from the Ibn Ezra on our original
Pasuk from Shelach (14:20).  He compares Moshe’s
prayer for Bnei Yisrael after the Cheit HaEigel to the
Korban that the Kohen Gadol brought in Vayikra, stating
that both did not bring forgiveness “until [the sinner did]
complete Teshuvah.”  This sentiment is also echoed in
Yeshayahu (1:11), where Hashem rejects Bnei Yisrael’s
sacrifices and urges them to do Teshuvah and turn away
from their evil actions instead.  How could Aharon’s
Korban have enabled forgiveness for others, as Iyov’s
prayers did, if forgiveness could only come to Bnei
Yisrael with penitence?  Furthermore, why would Iyov’s
friends not have to do Teshuvah, as Bnei Yisrael did in all
the cases we have seen?
The answer to these questions appears in the
Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah, Laws of Repentance (1:6).  In
describing the various types of sins and the Teshuvah
process for each, the Rambam mentions that the
procedure through which the Kohen Gadol atones for all of
Bnei Yisrael on Yom Kippur atones only for the “light”
sins (i.e.  those not punishable by death or Kareit).  The
Kohen Gadol’s sacrifice can only atone for “heavy” sins,
however, if the sinner does Teshuvah, as well.  This
explains why Moshe was never able to bring forgiveness
upon all of Bnei Yisrael: since, in the cases discussed
above, the nation deserved the death penalty, Bnei
Yisrael could be forgiven only with Teshuvah, so they
deserved punishment even after Moshe’s prayers.  In the
case of Iyov’s friends, on the other hand, the combination of
sacrifices and prayer was enough to bring total
forgiveness, since their sin (unfairly accusing Iyov) did not
incur the death penalty, and no Teshuvah was technically

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