Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

The Art and Urgency of Prayer

"U-Paroh hikriv, va-yisiu Benei Yisrael et eineihem ve-hinei Mitzrayim noseia ahareihem, va-yireu meod, va- yitzaaku Benei Yisrael el Hashem."

The Torah reports (Shemot 14:10) that when Klal Yisrael confronted the pursuit of Paroh and his troops they responded to the impending danger by crying out to Hashem. While Unkelos renders "vayitzaaku" as a complaint (probably based on the ensuing criticism in the next pasuk, as the Ramban notes), most mefarshim conclude that the nation reflexively turned to Hashem in prayer in their time of crisis. Indeed, Rashi cites the Mechilta's comment ("tafsu umanut avotam") that Klal Yisrael invoked the example of the avot who perfected prayer as an indispensable vehicle for avodat Hashem. The Ramban (Sefer ha-Mitzvot) asserts that prayer as a response to crisis constitutes a Biblical obligation. This paradigmatic episode apparently affirms that ruling.

However, several pesukim later(14:14,15), the Torah appears to reject Benei Yisrael's prayer solution in this particular context. Moshe informs the nation that Hashem will engage the enemy even as they are to maintain silence- "Hashem yilachem lachem; ve-atem tacharishun". This remarkable statement is followed by Hashem's apparent questioning of the very propriety of prayer in this context - "Va-yomer Hashem el Moshe mah tizaak eilai; daber el Benei Yisrael ve-yisau." Is it possible that prayer, a central pillar in halachic life, a primary vehicle for man's interaction with Hashem, designated by Chazal as "avodah she-be-leiv", could ever be either superfluous, or even inappropriate?

A significant group of medrashim and mefarshim seem to reject this conclusion. Some actually interpret these pesukim as further underscoring the remarkable efficacy of prayer. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel suggests that the charge for silence was a call to even greater focus on prayers of praise and thanksgiving that would contribute to the Divine salvation. Unkelos argues that the silence conveyed that the prayers had already achieved their desired effect. Ohr Hachaim posits that Moshe intended to instill even greater confidence in the nation by indicating that they would have been deserving of salvation even without having embarked on the more ideal path of prayer. According to Targum Yonaton, Moshe's prayer policy was not rejected; he was simply being informed that the nation's effective supplications had made additional prayer superfluous. The Netziv, too, rejects the notion that "mah tizaak eilai" constitutes a critique. Hashem was merely informing Moshe that prayer was not a necessary component in this particular supernatural struggle.

Another group of mefarshim suggest that while these pesukim do not question the role or propriety of tefillah, they do provide an important halachic perspective. While prayer is always appropriate and even necessary, it is not always sufficient. As Chazal often note, it is important that prayer be joined by concrete action and effort (hishtadlut). During the yomim noraim period, we proclaim that the combined triad of teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah overturn a negative decree. The Orchot Chaim and others argue that these pesukim emphasize the inadequacy of prayer as a solitary solution, particularly in these circumstances. Klal Yisrael was vulnerable to the charge of being spiritually impoverished and unworthy of salvation ("halalu ovdei avodah zarah ve-halalu ovedai avodah zarah"). It was necessary for the nation to establish the sincerity of their dedication to Hashem and earn spiritual merit by a dramatic act of faith like plunging into the Yam Suf in order that their prayers might be effective.

Moreover, it is possible that an exaggerated reliance upon prayer that comes at the expense of other halachic obligations undermines prayer itself. [Just as lilmod shelo al menat laasot constitutes a flawed lilmod...] Tefillah constitutes an important component of the larger framework of avodat Hashem. Its profound themes and comprehensive range reflect this. Its integration and interaction with other mitzvoth - moadim, tefilin, talmud Torah etc. - further underscores this reality. Thus, the exclusive pursuit of tefillah in a context that also demands attention to other values is counterproductive. The stature and efficacy of prayer is diminished by its isolation from or competition with an integrated avodat Hashem.

According the gemara (Sotah 37a) and Mechilta (also cited by Rashi 14:15) Moshe was not criticized for engaging in prayer at this critical moment but for lingering in prayer while the nation panicked, and sought concrete direction. This miscalculation reflects the need for tefillah to be augmented and integrated with other halachic values and considerations. The gemara (Berachot 34a; see also Berachot 32a and Tosafot) notes that we encounter the models of both lengthy and abbreviated prayer, and that both can be traced to different experiences of a single author, Moshe Rabbeinu. When his sister Miriam was suffering, Moshe instinctively recognized the propriety of succinct, direct prayer. When the nation's needs demanded a more complex and persistent approach, Moshe was attuned to that challenge as well.

The perspective of the gemara and Mechilta also establish that the form and method of tefillah is neither uniform nor interchangeable. Timing and context are significant factors in avodah she-be-leiv. Elaborate prayer may be inappropriate when succinct prayer is called for. Prayer focused on Divine praise and thanksgiving may not substitute for prayers of petition or expiation. Daily prayer and festival prayer demand different structures and emphases. Indeed, Chazal indicate that Hashem rejected celestial praise while the Egyptians were drowning. The gemara precludes the reciting of hallel on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, deeming it incompatible with the climate of Divine judgment.

Some authorities explain that these pesukim also convey the need to be rigorous and discriminating in the content and implications of prayer. The Ramban concludes that Hashem was critical of Moshe's prayers for salvation because He had already committed to a positive outcome. It is possible that this insight establishes more than the superfluous character of this tefillah. The Shelah asserts that the nation's tefillah was seriously flawed because it implicitly questioned Hashem's previous commitment. The Chasam Sofer posits that it is inappropriate to pray that there should be a messianic era, as the prayer implicitly challenges an existing tenet of our faith. On the other hand, it is entirely proper to pray that the arrival of the messianic era be hastened. He argues that Moshe Rabbeinu was being told to focus on the method of victory - "daber el Benei Yisrael ve-yisau" - rather than on the outcome itself -"lamah tizaak eilai". [The Seforno suggests that the content of Moshe's tefillah was flawed from a different perspective, as it implied that the nation was not prepared to respond to the spiritual challenge.]

Furthermore, it is possible that the nation's prayer at this juncture was flawed precisely because it did not sufficiently qualify as an act of unconditional worship. The pasuk that records the initial response of prayer is immediately followed by a litany of complaints questioning the exodus from Egypt. The Ramban suggests that this juxtaposition motivated Uneklos to conclude that "va-yitzaaku" does not refer to prayer. The Ramban himself notes the view that prayer and complaint represent the diverse responses of different groups. However, he concludes that when the nation's prayers did not achieve immediate success, halting Paroh's advance, the disappointment produced a complete rejection of Moshe's leadership. While prayer as an unconditional act of faith and worship (avodah she-be-leiv) is always a positive phenomenon, prayer as an expedient panacea of instant gratification is deeply flawed, even counterproductive. At times, silence may be preferable to superficial and conditional worship.

The halachic principles that govern tefillah clearly establish the need for thorough preparation and thought. The mishna (Berachot 33a) records the extraordinary efforts of the early chassidim. Appropriate and efficacious tefillah is rarely haphazard. While prayer should flow from the heart, the halachah assigns great significance to the structure, order, and content of prayers. Prayer as an act of worship requires the elimination of any presumptuousness or over-familiarity by invoking the paradigms of "Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzhak, Elokei Yaakov", as Rashi in Beshalach notes. It even demands that we be circumspect in our lavishing of Divine praise (Berachot 33b, and see Penei Yehoshua). Different occasions and festivals call for different prayers and the accenting of different themes and motifs. While prayer is a core principle of halachic life, it is an act of faith and worship that requires intensive study and that needs to be integrated into our comprehensive program of avodat Hashem. Prayer is both indispensable and an art.

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