Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Moses, why are you still praying? Go forward!
Are you a person who is inclined to prayer and meditation? Do you find your spiritual devotion through prayer to be meaningful? Many people today like to discuss the benefits of prayer. Most often we talk about how doctors notice the benefit prayer has on the outlook of a patient so inclined.
I’m one of these people that is so inclined. I don’t base my belief in prayer off of pseudo-science or because polls tell me it should matter. I find the act of prayer to be very meaningful and comforting to me. And I’m not even a supernatural minded person, but I benefit very much from prayer. So much do I love prayer that I dedicate most of my time to transcribing and translating siddurim – Hebrew prayerbooks. I find the way the way that humans make a song of their pains and hopes to be very powerful and captivating. It also gives me personal strength.
Even as much as I love prayer, I have come to realize one needs to have more than just that in our lives. Our Torah seems to suggest that there are times when people may be spending too much time praying and too little time doing.
Let me put this weeks Torah reading and this discussion in context. The children of Israel are with their backs up against the wall for the first time. Quite literally, when they are being pursued by Pharaoh and they are locked in by the Sea of Reeds on the other end. The people immediately begin to complain and consider breaking ranks. They lament to the tune of: We told you so, Moses. We wanted to just be left alone. We are okay with being slaves to the Egyptians. But now we are going to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:10-13)
We will pick up the text with this next verse. We will start with our Hebrew text, and then later I will transliterate our key verse for the benefit of all students. Our text reads:
“And Moses said to the people |
don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see |
the salvation of Hashem |
which He shall work for you today |
For the way you see the Egyptians is only for today. |
But you shall no longer continue to see them this way |
for eternity. |
Hashem will fight for you, |
but you shall remain silent.” |
וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל–הָעָם
אֲשֶׁר–יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם:
כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת–מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם—
לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד,
יְיָ, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם;
I could simmer on so many points here in this text. The murmuring. The disappointing lack of faith even after all they had previously experienced. The fact that people were so complacent and defeatist that they professed to preferred a life of slavery, as that was something they understood. Faced with freedom and the consequences of it, they react with fear. This was more than they expected, so the children of Israel panic and complain.
However I would like to bring out attention to how Moses challenges them with this statement. He calls them to not be afraid; stand firm and watch G-d work a salvation for them. G-d is going to save them, He is going to rescue them from this danger.
However, before Moses begins to explore their options and talk about G-d “fighting” for His people, Moses beings to address the harder issue. The bigger obstacle for them to overcome was in themselves, even before they could face the enormity of their threat by the Egyptian army. Their own lack of self-determination and belief in themselves was their issue. They didn’t feel worthy of freedom, however they did understand their former roles as beaten-down slaves to a master.
But then Moses tells them, the way that they see the Egyptians is just for today (ha-yom). That is their reality today. That might be the way that they see their masters today, as strong and overwhelming. Though that is just today’s reality. Even though one might feel that way to-day (ha-yom), tomorrow they wont.
Rashi focuses on some key words here, and directs his attention to the way the Hebrews see the Egyptians. Rashi interprets this phrase to focus on, “Mah sheritah otam / on how you perceive them.” To Rashi this phrase is more than just saying that G-d is going to magically pull off a now-you-seem-them now-you-don’t routine by magically getting rid of the Egyptians. Moses had to struggle with the Hebrew’s perceptions that crippled them in fear. The way they understood their masters (asher reitem) and in-tern themselves, it was debilitating to them.
Here Moses performs the effective role of a good and concerned leader. He comforts his people through this. He assures them that they are not always going to feel this way. And as for this threat, this too will also pass, he assures them. But more so, Rashi seems to focus on the idea that the people had always seen their Egyptian masters this way, but now it was going to be over.
In contrast, Ibn Ezra takes a different approach. He is of the opinion that we should emphasize the word “ha-yom” (today), because what they were seeing of the Egyptians that actual day was actually unprecedented. Never had the Egyptians been so fierce and threatening. Ibn Ezra has has Moses saying they have never seen anything quite like that before, but that it should be of no consequences because they will never see it ever again.
The people are pushed up against the water now, and the Egyptians are coming at them with everything they’ve got. Moses tells the people to not fear, and to be quiet. He says tichrashu – be quiet, Not just to be quiet and stop their complaining. To restrain oneself. The root word implying to act as though deaf and dumb. Almost like a parent Moses seems to push the people to the side like children, as though telling them to put their fingers in the ears and hum out world as he faces this problem coming at them. G-d will fight for them.
However much comfort and assurance Moses gave the people, it seems that he doesn’t seem to take his own advice to heart. He appears to begin to freak out over the situation himself, while still trying to calm their fears.
How can I assert this? Look the next statement, in our key verse for today. This next verse begins at the top of our fourth reading:
“And Hashem said to Moses:
What are you crying out to Me?
Speak to the children of Israel,
and have them go forward!”
| Vayomer Hashem el Moshe
| mah titz’ak elai
| daber el benei Yisrael
What do we have Hashem saying to Moses? Immediately after Moses tells the people to hold ranks and to be quiet, the next thing we hear is G-d asking Moses, “Mah titzak elai / why are you crying out to Me?” Moses silences the people, but then in the next sentence G-d is asking Moses why he is shouting at Him. Why are you yelling, why are you complaining at Me? Mah titzak elai?
Whereas Moses tells the people to hold their peace and await G-d’s salvation, he does not stand by quietly. We learn by way of G-d’s response, that Moses is desperately and fiercely crying out to G-d for help. As a leader, Moses cannot just sit back silently. These people are looking to him for a solution.
Now how does Rashi understand this part of the text? Our master’s cometary for this verse reads:
“Why do you cry out to Me: [This verse] teaches us that Moses was standing and praying. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, ‘This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.’
Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,” as it is said further [in Scripture]: “Concerning My children and the work of My hands do you command Me?” (Isa. 45:11). — [from Mechilta, Exod. Rabbah 21:8]”
מה תצעק אלי: למדנו שהיה משה עומד ומתפלל, אמר לו הקב“ה לא עת עתה להאריך בתפלה שישראל נתונין בצרה.
דבר אחר מה תצעק אלי עלי הדבר תלוי ולא עליך, כמו שנאמר להלן “על בני ועל פועל ידי תצוני” (ישעיה מה יא):
Rashi to Exodus 14:15
I include the second explanation here as well. In these latter lines Rashi goes on to give us another interpretation that is key as well. In it he acknowledges that Moses is using a tone that is reprimanding of G-d. The other meaning of the work tzak.
However, as a master rabbi he first tempers the tones a bit. He provides a bit more of a dignified and reverencing tone for our dear Moses. He wants to show Moses as being respectful to G-d. And in doing so he actually accuses Moses of doing something that is just as terrible, if not more so in our eyes.
Rashi says Moses was too busy praying to act. Moses was standing there saying lengthy prayers. Though these actions on the part of Moses would on one hand seem honorable, they are also obviously misguided. And that is the lesson that Rashi delivers to us today.
This isn’t the only place that we have this type of example of “crying out” being related to prayer in the Torah. In Parshat Pinchas was also have a case where the people were literally crying out. In Numbers 25:6, we are told that when rebellion and a plague broke out the elders were too busy “bochim / crying” to do anything about what they were witnessing. There we are told by our rabbis that the leaders were too busy praying there as well. But in that case, in sorrow and wailing. Crying with tears.
However here, Moses’ crying out was one of protest and and desperation. He calms the people as they look to him, but now he demands that G-d answer him. And G-d instead turns the situation back on to Moses.
In the alternative interpretation Rashi has G-d acknowledging that He is indeed responsible for this people. G-d doesn’t need to be told who is really in charge of the entire universe, and therefore responsible for this situation as well.
Though from G-d’s perspective, what is really needed is for Moses and the people to take ownership of their situation and move forward for themselves. G-d assures them that He will help them, but they need to nasa, the Hebrew root for veyisa’u – they need to push forward, the need to move ahead, they need to travel, they need to drive on.
And therefore in our next verses of the parsha, we have the most famous moment in all of Jewish history presented.We read of the command of Hashem for Moses to hold out the staff and part the Sea of Reeds. And then they cross over on dry land.
Almost all people have strong feelings about the phrase, “G-d helps those who help themselves.” I think we can all see some truth in this, and yet also recognize the cruel oversimplification of personal hardship made by these words. But in this parsha our scriptures and tradition comes close to making this statement. It’s not as judgmental, yet it is even more personally demanding.
Instead of standing put in prayer and meditation, we need to move forward. We need to drive on, and out of our situation. Why do I throw meditating into that mix there? It may seem out of place to make such a charge, but it is less so for the student of Kabbalah who practices meditation as an active form of mysticism.
You see the power of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds is one of the most revered displays of the Divine in all of human history. To the student of the mystical tradition, this is a key moment in the Torah to study as it displays how a direct intervention of G-d works. So sacred is this moment that we have many kavvanot and piyyutim – guided meditations and liturgical songs – based on this very moment in the Torah. That seek to connect us to the mystical power of that miracle.
Kavvanot and piyyutim – these meditations and liturgical songs, they are detailed and focused forms of prayer and concentration. They take real mental energy, and often take some time to get to know well. They are a beautiful way of centering oneself, but it takes time and effort. Not so much action, but they are very time consuming and engrossing. And for the deeper mystics, some even meditate upon the 72-Names, a mystical prayer form that some Kabbalsists say helped part the Sea of Reeds. There are some that contend that the people meditated upon the 72 Names of G-d; hidden in cypher in the words of Exodus 14:19-21. And upon doing this G-d parted the Sea of Reeds.
One might think that the Kabbalists – who actually embellished and extended prayers more than any other group, who added layer after layer of meditation to our prayerbooks, created pauses in the prayers to direct your thoughts, and further added a heavy wealth of liturgical poems – that they would disagree with Rashi’s harsh rebuke.
Yet even our mystical tradition challenges us, that when we are pushed up against a body of water – when our backs are against the wall – we need to move forward. Our Kabbalists don’t tell us to just chant and pray, and wait for everything to turn out all right.
They would bring to our attention back to our Midrashic tradition. Our inherited wisdom through folklore, which tells us that Nachshon, a prince from the tribe of Yehudah (Judah) was the first to lead his men into the waters. The midrash stresses that not until he had immersed himself into the problem, this being the Sea holding them back, did G-d intervene and split the waters before them all. (see “Split Your Sea” at Chabad.org; Midrash Tehillim 114:8; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:7)
Our tradition, both in the basics and in the advanced practice, teaches us that we need to do more than just pray about our problems. We need to do more than think about how we are going to be saved. We need to even do more than just get our feet wet, we need to be bold like Nachshon and jump into the problem. It’s not enough to just sit by the banks and consider what to do next. It’s not enough to just wait for G-d to rescue us.
Whereas our Torah only superficially reveals a command for Moses to compose himself and extend his staff over the waters as our call out of complacency, our deeper tradition even goes further and says we should be willing jump into the problem up to our nostrils before we start expecting that G-d has to help us out of our troubles.
It is not commendable to just pray and hope for the best. Our prayers are not supposed to distract us and release us of the responsibility to make as much progress on our own behalf as we can. To have to face the real problem for ourselves. Our prayers and meditations are supposed to give us strength. Strength to help us move forward. And to direct the focus of our hopes. Not to keep us stuck ascetically in one spot, mystically waiting to be saved from our problems. If we do our part, then we instantly enable ourselves with the opportunity to further see how G-d can help us work a salvation in our lives.
About the Author: Welcome to Hardcore Mesorah! My name is Shmueli Gonzales, and I am an author and translator from Los Angeles, California. As a blog writer, I enjoy talking about the challenging topics of Torah and Jewish life. I also tackle topics of personal struggle as learned through my current struggle with HIV/AIDS. Among my various projects I also produce classical liturgical and halachic texts for free and open-source redistribution.
- Parshat Beshalach (2013)
- Parshat Beshalach (2011)
- Split Your Sea (Chabad.org)
- 72 ‘Names” of G-d (Chabad.org)
- Breaking Down Elitism in Kabbalah Study
- Parshat Yitro (2013)
- Parshat Yitro (2012)
- The Force of Real Activism in the Torah (from Parshat Bo)
- Parshat Bo (2013)
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