B’shalach: The art of prayer

B’shalach: The art of prayer

Kehilat Kesher Community Synagogue of Tenafly and Englewood, Orthodox

As the Israelites stood on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, with the deep waters on one side and the advancing Egyptian armies on the other, they appeared to do what has been the classic Jewish response to times of crisis since time immemorial: they prayed.

“And when Pharaoh drew closer, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and they saw the Egyptians were marching towards them, and they became very afraid; and the children of Israel cried out to God. (Exodus 14:10)”

The medieval commentator Rashi understands these cries to be ones of prayer: “Tafsu umnut avotam,” “[the people] grabbed on to the art of their ancestors.” Namely, they prayed.

This verse alone should not surprise us. Examples throughout Jewish history are testament enough; it was and continues to be entirely natural and understandable for people, in an act of extraordinary faith, to beseech God for redemption and deliverance from moments of despair. What may be troubling, however, is how fleeting this faith seems to have been.

In the very next verse, the people turn to Moses and complain:

“And they said to Moses: Is it because there are no graves in Egypt, that you’ve taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us forth out of Egypt? Did we not tell you this in Egypt? To leave us alone to serve the Egyptians? For it would be better to serve the Egyptians than to go out to the wilderness and perish!”

Is this the same people that beseeched God only a moment earlier?

Commentators struggle to make sense of the dissonance in these verses. Presumably because of this question, the Aramaic translator Onkelos differs from Rashi’s interpretation, and renders the people’s cries to God not as cries of prayer, but as cries of complaint. Alternatively, Nahmanides suggests (among a number of other approaches) that there were different factions among the people, some of whom turned to God in prayer, and others who complained.

While these approaches are plausible, perhaps even compelling, I believe the force of this question brings us inexorably to a profound truth. The human condition is fraught with tension and conflict. One can raise their voice in supplication to God, asking with full faith for guidance and support, and in the very next moment harbor feelings of resentment toward the very God in whom one has placed their trust.

This important insight into human emotion would be a worthwhile lesson in its own right. Even more telling, however, is God’s response: “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to just go!”

Was God telling the people through Moses that at this juncture prayer was inappropriate? Is it ever really time to “stop davening?”

The notion of striking a balance between prayer and action is always an imperative. What is clear however, both from the people’s fleeting faith and from God’s response, is the complex nature of authentic prayer. Prayer is often viewed as a scientific endeavor; ask, and ye shall receive. In reality, however, prayer can never be understood or implemented in a vacuum. As Rashi at least posits, prayer is an art form. The questions of how, when, and for whom to pray, of when to extend our prayer and when to abridge them, of when to reflect intently on our prayers and when to rush through them, are not simple ones. With any art form, it is only through time and effort and a commitment to cultivating the skills necessary to become proficient that we can succeed. So too with prayer.

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