“Whomever extends his prayer, his prayer will not come back empty. How do we know this? From Moshe our teacher, as it says, ‘and I prayed to G-d’ (D’varim 9:26), and it says after that, ‘and G-d listened to me that time as well’ (D’varim 10:10).” This Talmudic statement (B’rachos 32b), based on Moshe praying to G-d for 40 days to forgive the Children of Israel for the golden calf, is a bit puzzling, as there is no indication in these verses that a longer prayer is more effective than a shorter one. Maybe Moshe was answered because he was the righteous Moshe, who was so close to G-d, who did the praying, or because over the 40-day period those for whom he was praying had become more worthy of forgiveness. As the P’nay Y’hoshua points out, there were many other times when Moshe prayed for a very short time and was answered; how does his being answered after such an extended prayer show that it is more effective than a shorter one?
This question can be side-stepped if we reframe the message of the Talmudic statement to mean that it is worthwhile to keep praying for something over and over again rather than a longer prayer being more effective. In this case, Moshe was asking G-d to forgive the nation and let them continue on their mission, including reestablishing the covenant they had broken by worshipping the golden calf, and it wasn’t until the end of the 40 days of Moshe’s continual prayer that G-d told him to carve out tablets that He would inscribe with the text that was on the first set (10:1). The point being made could be that we are not being bothersome nudges if we ask G-d for the same thing over and over again, as Moshe did so for 40 straight days, and even though his prayer wasn’t answered the first 39 days, he kept asking again anyway, and it eventually helped. Nevertheless, this is not how most understand this Talmudic statement (including how it’s referenced on 34b, although that could just be poetic license to get a point across about taking a long time to pray), so I will attempt to explain this statement as if it means that a longer prayer is more effective than a shorter one.
Our first order of business is to deal with the verses quoted by the Talmud. Rashash changes the text of the first quoted verse to “and I fell [in prayer],” referring to D’varim 9:18, which constitutes changing just one letter (from “va’espalel” to “va’esnapel”), which in turn makes the Talmud’s reference of “and G-d listened to me that time as well” referring to 9:19 instead of 10:10. Although Rashash doesn’t explain why he makes this change, it can be assumed that it is because 9:19 directly follows 9:18, and is a continuation of the same thought, while 10:10 is in a totally separate paragraph from 9:26, and part of a different thought/conversation.
[P’nay Y’hoshua asks how the Talmud can put 9:26 and 10:10 together since they are in completely separate conversations, and discounts changing the text to 9:18 because we can’t learn anything about the advantage of longer prayer from a circumstance where the prayer hadn’t been answered (as obviously unanswered prayers should be continued until answered). Without getting into his approach to these issues, I will just share four issues with his approach: (1) He translates “his prayer will not come back empty” as “it will be answered in its entirety,” which, if that was the intent, could have more easily been worded “his prayer will be completely answered,” whereas this wording means (or at least implies) it is not for naught, but will accomplish something, if not everything; (2) He says 9:26 is quoted to prove that the prayers made in the middle 40 days weren’t answered completely (only halfway) because they would not be considered an extended prayer, even though the Talmud is clearly quoting it to prove how valuable extended prayer is; (3) He contrasts the prayers made in the middle 40 days not being answered completely because it doesn’t say “and G-d listened to me that time as well” there with the two times it does say those words, without explaining which prayer the first one (9:18) was referring to (it can’t be the same prayer referenced in 9:26 if such a contrast is being made) despite Moshe prefacing that it was a prayer said for 40 days and 40 nights (precluding the prayer said at the very end of the first set of 40 days, while the prayer said during the third set is referred to later); and (4) He understands the second “and G-d listened to me that time as well” to be referring to the prayers made during the third set of 40 days, even though the answer was that the nation will not be destroyed (10:10), which had already been answered before Moshe ascended for the third set of 40 days (and was already told that he would get the second Luchos).]
Which prayers Moshe made during each of the three sets of 40 days is debated by the commentators. Ibn Ezra (Sh’mos 32:11) is of the opinion that there was no prayer during the first set of 40 days; even after Moshe was informed of the sin of the golden calf, he couldn’t ask for forgiveness while they were still sinning, so had to first go down and start the process of repentance. The biggest difficulty with this approach is that the Torah describes Moshe’s (successful) prayer before telling us that he descended (Sh’mos 32:11-14). Among the other issues is how it can be said that the prayer Moshe made during the middle set of 40 days was “also” answered (D’varim 9:19) if there was no prior prayer. Although this question is dealt with (see Ibn Ezra, Rashbam and Chizkuni) by suggesting that it refers to prayers Moshe made before the golden calf incident, such as by the sea (see Sh’mos 14:15), when they were thirsty at Marah (15:25) and when they were thirsty in R’fidim (17:4), since none of these were referenced by Moshe here (the third is included in D’varim 9:22, albeit not in regards to Moshe praying), it would be difficult for the “also” to mean besides those earlier prayers; why refer to them when discussing G-d answering Moshe’s request that G-d forgive them for the golden calf? Rather than saying “and G-d listened to me that time as well,” why not stop at “and G-d listened to me”?
Ramban (Sh’mos 32:11-12) insists that Moshe prayed that G-d should not destroy the nation before he descended Mt. Sinai at the end of the first set of 40 days (how could he not, once he heard that G-d wanted to destroy them), and prayed again during the second and third sets of 40 days, but for different things. Among the questions on Ramban’s approach is how closely the wording of the prayer described here (D’varim 9:26-29), said to have been made for 40 days (9:25, which seems to be discussing the second set of 40 days), matches the prayer Moshe made on the last day of the first set of 40 days (Sh’mos 32:11-13). [His answer (D’varim 9:25-26) is less than satisfying.] G-d “also” listening to Moshe’s prayer here can more easily be explained, though, as besides being answered at the end of the first set of 40 days (that G-d would not destroy His people), he was answered again after the prayers made during the second set of 40 days (see Ramban on D’varim 9:19-20) and yet again after the prayers made during the third set of 40 days (see Ramban on D’varim 10:10), but the “answers” to these prayers don’t really match what Moshe was praying for. [Ramban tries to address this as well, with slightly more satisfying answers this time. That the prayer described in 9:26-29 is said to have been made over a period of 40 days and 40 nights (9:25), despite it dealing with G-d not destroying the nation, is indisputable, making it very difficult to reconcile it with the way these prayers are described in Parashas Ki Sisa.] Before trying to make sense of all these verses, let’s take a closer look at how these prayers don’t seem to match the way they were answered.
G-d is described as having been angry enough to destroy the nation until He listened to Moshe “again” (9:19), even though Moshe had already been told that G-d wouldn’t destroy them (Sh’mos 32:10/14), whereas during the second set of 40 days Moshe asked that the sin be forgiven (Sh’mos 32:32) so that the nation can reestablish its covenant with G-d, which included G-d leading the nation to the Promised Land, not just an administering angel (Sh’mos 33:12-16), a prayer that was answered when G-d said he would lead them (33:14) and reestablish his covenant with them (and therefore told Moshe to carve out replacement tablets, see 34:1). Why is G-d having wanted to destroy the nation mentioned before His listening to Moshe “again” if the “answer” wasn’t (and didn’t need to be, anymore) that G-d wouldn’t destroy them? Similarly, why is G-d thinking about destroying the nation mentioned regarding Moshe’s 40 day/night prayer in D’varim 10:10 if the prayers that G-d heard yet “again” there were during the third set of 40 days, well after the end of the first set?
Until now, Moshe had never told the nation what G-d would have done had he not intervened before descending from Mt. Sinai at the end of the first set of 40 days. Why should he? To toot his own horn, that he had single-handedly saved them from destruction? Besides, Moshe figured that he could more successfully convince them to repent if they didn’t know that G-d had already promised not to destroy them, as they might think that this indicated that His anger had started to wane when it really hadn’t (but that Moshe had successfully convinced Him not to express that anger by wiping them out). As far as the nation knew, things had occurred the way Ibn Ezra says they occurred, with Moshe rushing back down to try to get them to repent before it’s too late. In reality, though, even though G-d was still just as angry as He had been (since no repentance had taken place yet), Moshe did pray before descending, and was able to take destroying the nation off the table. Now, though, almost four decades later, when addressing the next generation, Moshe finally tells them what really happened, that G-d had already agreed not to destroy them before he came down the first time. But when he does, he also makes sure they know that G-d’s anger was still fully there, at least until they repented and he continued his extended prayer. If you can, grab a Chumash (D’varim), and follow along.
Moshe tells them that he had to pray as fervently after he descended, over a period of 40 days and 40 nights (9:18), as he did on the final day of the first set of 40 days (“karishona,” as done initially), fasting each of those 40 days (see N’tziv). Why did he have to pray as fervently then, if G-d had already said He wouldn’t destroy them? “For I was terrified by the anger and fury with which G-d was upset with you, to the point of wanting (initially) to destroy you” (9:19). Not that this destruction was still a possibility, but that this was the level of anger he had to deal with. Nevertheless, referring to G-d’s initial threat to destroy them, Moshe continues, “and G-d listened to me that time as well.” Please note that, according to this, Moshe is referring to G-d listening to Moshe’s prayer made at the end of the first set of 40 days (which was referenced in order to illustrate the level of G-d’s anger that was still, at this point, in full force). We will get back to why Moshe says he was answered “again” if this was the first in the sequence of prayers after the golden calf.
Moshe continues to describe the level of G-d’s anger by sharing another “new” piece of information, that G-d wanted to destroy Aharon too (9:20), before relating that he destroyed the golden calf (9:21), which started the process of diminishing G-d’s anger. Then other instances where the nation angered G-d are mentioned (9:22-24) before Moshe returns to the golden calf (9:25), repeating that he had to pray for 40 days and 40 nights “because G-d had said he would destroy you,” and it was that level of anger that had to be reversed. The paragraph ends (9:26-29) with Moshe sharing with the nation — for the first time — the prayer Moshe made, before he had descended from the mountain, that convinced G-d not to destroy them. There is no need to tell us G-d’s response here, because Moshe had already told us that G-d had answered that prayer (9:19).
The next time Moshe mentions praying for 40 days and 40 nights (10:10), he is referring to those same set of 40 days/nights, the middle one, except that this time when he tells us that “G-d listened to me that time as well,” he is referring to his prayer being answered after this extended 40 day/night prayer. What was G-d’s answer? “G-d no longer wanted to destroy you.” That He wouldn’t destroy you was already known from G-d answering Moshe’s first prayer (at the end of the first set of 40 days), but that didn’t mean He didn’t still want to. Now, though, after Moshe’s extended prayer (and the repentance that went along with it), G-d no longer wanted to destroy you, which paved the way for His being able to lead you once again, and reestablish His covenant with you.
Getting back to how G-d listened to Moshe “again” after his first prayer, the narrative being presented by Moshe was, for the most part, already known. They all knew that they weren’t destroyed, just as they knew that they had spent 40 years in the desert, and that G-d led them to the doorstep of the Promised Land (through His “clouds of glory”). What was being shared now was how they got to where they were, and the meaning and importance of every step they took to get there (both the good steps and the missteps). They therefore knew that G-d had eventually forgiven them for the golden calf (to some degree), but didn’t know that there were three sets of prayers, not just two. Moshe was telling them that not only had G-d listened to his extended 40-day prayers (which they had been aware of), but He “also” listened to the one they had been unaware of, the one made before he descended from Mt. Sinai the first time. Even though the “also” in the second mention (10:10) refers to a prayer made prior to the one under discussion (because they were described sequentially), the “also” in the first mention (9:19) refers to a prayer made after the one under discussion, because the second one was known first.
Even though it makes sense to use “also” to refer to a subsequent prayer if that was the one known about first, it was still unnecessary to add the words “at that time as well,” unless there was a reason to think G-d wouldn’t have listened to the first one. But why would G-d have listened to Moshe the second time and not the first if His level of anger was the same? The Talmud therefore says that from here we learn that an extended prayer is more effective that a shorter prayer; not only did G-d listen to Moshe’s extended 40-day prayer (which can be expected, since extended prayers are so powerful), but He even (“also”) listened to Moshe’s shorter prayer, which was made at the very end of the very last day of the first set of 40 days.