The story of Parashat Va’etchanan is the story of one man’s prayer. That man was Moses, and he prayed with all his heart to enter the land of Israel. His plea is a model of one of the ten ways of expressing prayer, and it would be good to know why Moses chose this particular form of prayer on this occasion.

...we learned how to pray from a woman – from Chana...

The Sages say that we learned how to pray from a woman – from Chana, whose story is told is the Book of Samuel – even though the code of Jewish law devolves most of the laws of prayer upon men. Chana prayed quietly, so quietly that Eli, the High Priest thought she was drunk and unable to speak. But Chana answered him, "No, sir, I am a woman of difficult words," meaning that she was so overwhelmed that words came to her with great difficulty. Eli answered her, 'lechi leshalom/go in peace', so he must have accepted her explanation, but the story implies that the normal way of praying was in an audible voice.

Shem miShmuel explains that there are two types of prayer: one comes from the heart, the other from the mind. The former is prayer that comes from a place of pain and suffering, while the latter results from understanding and awe of G‑dliness. Prayer that comes from the heart is accompanied by crying and audible expressions, while prayer that comes from the mind is quiet, being based upon meditation and contemplation of G‑dliness.

Shem miShmuel says that the greatest holy men prayed quietly, without any obvious movement or expression. As an example, he cites Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa, who would pray without any movement, standing like a stone, while tears spilled from his eyes. Shem miShmuel also recalls that his grandfather, the Kotzker Rebbe, prayed without movement, but his cheeks "burned like flames, like a fearful angel." [I myself prayed in the presence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe many times, and he was always completely still and quiet.—DS]

Emotional requests that burst spontaneously from the heart...are the expression of someone in need...

Shem miShmuel suggests this may also be the difference between the prayers arranged for us by the 'Anshei Knesset Hagedola/The Men of the Great Assembly' (who composed the basic version of the siddur), and the prayers we say spontaneously, of our own volition, from our heart. The prayers of the siddur are arranged according to intellectual contemplation of such subjects as creation ex-nihilo, angels, unity of G‑d, and the like. They demand concentration and intellectual understanding, which later filter down to the heart to create excitement. Emotional requests that burst spontaneously from the heart are not intellectual; they are the expression of someone in need, calling for help.

And that explains the conversation between Chana and Eli, the High Priest. Chana wasn’t praying at the normal time that day, and she prayed at greater length than what the standard prayers dictated. So, Eli justifiably assumed that these were Chana’s own prayers, which should have come in an audible voice of someone expressing the distress of the heart. So, when Chana prayed quietly, Eli mistook her for drunk. She had to explain to him that she was a "woman of difficult words."The discipline of meditation and contemplation had raised her to such a high level that she was overcome by intense spiritual revelation, making it difficult for her to express herself in words.

Now, says Shem miShmuel, we can understand why Moses "pleaded." The Midrash tells us that this is the highest of the ten ways to pray. As the highest, it is the most intellectual and refined. As we gain more knowledge and understanding of G‑dliness, we appreciate how distant we are from the One Above, no matter how great our spiritual achievement may be. With that appreciation, comes greater and greater self-nullification (bitul).

When we reach the highest levels – as did Moses near the end of his life – we pray with the greatest humility. That is what is meant by "Va’etchanan"--"And I pleaded." When we plead, we do so without consideration of our station or merit. We plead not because we think we deserve an answer, but because we request a gift from Above. And this attitude is the truest expression of where we stand in relation to the One Above.

[From "Inner Lights from Jerusalem" based on the Shem miShmuel and other Chassidic and Kabalistic Sources, translated and presented by Rabbi David Sterne]