At the end of this week’s parsha (last week’s for those in Israel), we have the story of Miriam’s צרעת and Moshe’s prayer for her:
That is a very short prayer. Maybe too short. As a gabbai, I am happy to see that people have been complaining about the chazzan for thousands of years:
But even with this very short prayer, Rashi notes the repetition of the word נא:
But נא doesn’t only mean “please”; it can also be translated “now”:
And that’s how Onkelos translates it:
In fact, Onkelos almost always translates נא as כְעַן, ”now“, even when “please” might seem more appropriate:
(There is one exception, which I cannot explain: (בראשית יט:יח) ויאמר לוט אלהם; אל נא אדנ־י: וַאֲמַר לוֹט לְהוֹן בְּבָעוּ כְעַן יְיָ.)
In general, Onkelos only translates נא as בְּבָעוּ, ”please“ if the word appears twice in the same phrase:
And that is how he translates נא here:
And Artscroll, going against their stated method of translation, sides with Onkelos against Rashi:
And most other מפרשים agree:
What does נא, ”now“, mean? Even Rashi sees the urgency in Moshe’s prayer, in the word לאמר:
sounds like an incredible amoutn of chutzpah but I think that Moshe is saying ה׳ had already given the laws of צרעת. There is a procedure. Moshe needs to know if this case of צרעת, that was so obviously miraculous, והענן סר מעל האהל והנה מרים מצרעת כשלג, should be treated differently.
And if it to be treated as צרעת, then it is a time to act, not a time to pray.
It’s the same lesson as at קריעת ים סוף:
And that lesson teaches us something about the nature of prayer. Prayer doesn’t change G-d’s mind, it changes ours.
And that is the difference between a תפילה קצרה and a תפילה ארוכה.
תפילה is important; ה׳ wants to hear us express our needs. But that doesn’t require אריכות מרובה; He already knows what we need. Sometimes we need the אריכות מרובה to reach the point that we deserve the things that we are asking for. Once we are at that point, a תפילה קצרה is appropriate, and then all that remains if for us to fulfill our responsibilities.