Rashi, Shemot 14:15 states that God criticized Moshe for praying on behalf of the Jewish People when they were in distress. This seems most strange. Isn’t prayer exactly the correct response to such a situation? Even Ramban, Commentary to Sefer HaMitzvot, who disagrees with the basic view of Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Aseh 5 that there is a mitzvah d’Oraita, a Biblical obligation, to pray regularly,1 nonetheless still maintains that there is clearly a mitzvah d’Oraita to pray b’eit tzarah, in times of trouble. As an adam gadol once said to me, to pray to God for assistance in a time of need would just simply seem to be the most rational thing that a person could do.2 It thus seems most strange for Rashi, Shemot 14:15 to state that God criticized Moshe for praying as the Jewish People were in distress. Shouldn’t this be equally true for Moshe?
To be honest, Rashi, building upon the words of T.B. Sotah 37a, specifically states that God challenged Moshe for prolonging his prayers. It would seem that the problem, of course, was not that Moshe prayed but rather that he extended the time of his prayers. What, though, does this mean? It could be contended that Moshe was simply praying until there was the desired result, in this case some miracle that would save the Jewish People from this terrible predicament. He, thus, extended his time of prayer and would continue to do so until his prayers would be answered. Somehow, it would seem according to Rashi, it is a problem even in a time of distress to pray for an extended time – even if one’s prayers have not yet been answered. Of course, we can question what exactly would define ‘an extended time’, but our first question must simply be why. Why is it that, in a time of distress or even in a time of distress,3 we must be careful not to prolong our prayers?
The simple answer, of course, would seem to be that we must still make sure that our turning to Hashem in prayer does not, in anyway, impact negatively on our ability, or perhaps, more importantly, our motivation to do whatever else is necessary to combat the perils of a situation in which we may find ourselves. Torah demands of us to live in two realms. In one, our focus is indeed to be on the recognition that God is able to do anything and is the source of all that happens to us. With this in our minds, it is understandable and indeed correct that our response to all that occurs to us should focus on this Source. This is the realm of prayer.4 There is, though, another realm in which we are to operate. In this one, our focus has to be on ourselves, our actions, what we can do. It is within this realm that we develop our own beings, a major objective of Creation. The parameters of existence were created by God in order to allow a place for human beings to grow and, as such, part of what is required of us is to work within these rules and respond with our own behaviour in order to achieve this growth. This, it would seem, is exactly what Shemot 14:15,16 is informing us. Hashem, after questioning Moshe about why he is praying tells him to act, specifically to go.5 Alternatively, Ramban, Shemot 14:15 states that God was criticizing Moshe for requesting God to act when he should have been asking what to do. While in this case the action that is demanded includes an awareness of the miraculous, and thus includes, even in this realm, an aspect of the supernatural Divine realm, the basic instruction is still the same as that to us within the natural order. There is a time for prayer, for us to turn to God to intervene on our behalf, and there is a time for us to act, to respond to situations with our own abilities for it is thereby that we grow and meet the Divine objective for humanity. We must balance the two realms. We can thus understand that the critique of prolonging our prayers is informing us to correct the balance in response to a situation.
Rashi, Bamidbar 12:13 in explaining why Moshe’s prayer for his sister Miriam was so short could also possibly be understood as expressing a similar idea. Rashi states the Moshe specifically offered a short prayer for his sister because of the concern that people would criticize him for prolonging his prayers while Miriam was in distress. The essence of this critique may be similarly that Moshe should also act and, similarly, find the correct balance between the realm of prayer and the realm of action. Yet why would it be assumed that a shortened prayer is necessarily a reflection of this balance? Maybe a prolonged prayer is exactly what would be necessary to bring about the desired effect in the realm of prayer? Maharal, Gur Aryeh explains that the effect of a prayer follows its conclusion and, as such, a shortened prayer is by definition always better. Rashi, however, alternatively suggests the potential critique against Moshe, if he would have extended his prayers, would have been that he was only willing to do so for his sister, implying actually that extended prayer is better. Perhaps the very disagreement between the two views of Rashi hinges upon this exact point, whether short or long prayers are superior. Nonetheless, why not present the simple answer that the shortened prayer was the proper expression of balance? The answer to this may be that there really was nothing else for Moshe to do. His only option was prayer and so Rashi had to explain why even in such a case Moshe chose a short prayer. Maharal’s answer explains why this may be inherently so; the second reason in Rashi explaining why even if a longer prayer would have been more appropriate, Moshe chose a short prayer in this case. Though, there the necessity of balance was not an explicit factor for us it must be primary.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefilla 1:1 further defines this as once/day.
2 In a private conversation I had with Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisrael, Baltmore, he made this point in response to a statement of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Shiurei HaRav: A Conspectus of the Public Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (ed. Joseph Epstein), Insights into M’gillat Esther that prayer reflects the irrational or child in Man. It is my humble opinion that these two g’dolim were not really disagreeing in essence but, rather, focusing of two different and distinct aspects of tefilla.
3 I presented both these options for all we can clearly learn from the case of Moshe is that one must not prolong his/her prayers in times of distress. There is no clear indication that there would be a problem in circumstances without distress. As such, is the lesson that we must not prolong our prayers specifically in a time of distress or always?
4 Of course, this realm is not limited to prayer. Teshuva, for example, specifically in terms of the first stage of responding to a negative event that may have befallen us by considering our actions on a moral/halachic level, would clearly include aspects of this realm. This example, though, also shows the complexity of this whole structure for in the process of teshuva, there is actually a combination of both realms in that human action is a factor in the Divine Will. An analysis of this complexity is, though, obviously beyond the parameters of this Insight. It should be noted, though, that even in basic prayer we find this meshing as we still find that it is the human being approaching God.
5 It may be interesting to note that Rashi’s other explanation of God’s statement to Moshe adopts a completely opposite approach declaring that this matter actually occupies an extreme case of the other realm in that everything is in the domain of God. Thus Rashi states that God is asking Moshe why he is even praying for even the human element of prayer is out of place in this case for what will transpire is a total result of the supernatural realm of God.© Nishma 2010
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© 2010 NISHMA