Jewish Journal


January 20, 2000

Prayer as Introspection

Parashat Beshellach: (Exodus 13:17 -- 137:16)


This week, in a portion filled with dramatic tales -- the escape from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna from heaven and Moses' striking of a rock for water -- we are startled by something much subtler: a brief exchange between human beings and God.

The Israelites, after leaving Egypt, find themselves running, and then trapped between furious, vengeful Egyptians and the Red Sea. It is a terrible moment for them. There is terror, fright, desperation. What do they do?

The Torah tells us. They lift their voices and pour out the contents of their hearts. It says: "they cried out to God" (14:10).

They pray. In their hour of need, when neither human hand nor natural forces can help them, the Israelites turn their attention to God. And this makes sense. But immediately, the Torah tells us that God answers, with a striking reaction: God tells the people to be quiet. After the Israelites cry out, God says to Moses: "Why do you cry out to Me?" (14:15)

It's a good question. Why do the Israelites call out to God?

Because they are terrified.

We do the same thing. Spontaneous prayer comes naturally to many of us. Think of a moment in the recent past when you've been particularly needy. You've been ill. A friend has been having a hard time. A relative has suffered. You've received some painful news. Or even under less dire conditions: a detail has been out of place. You haven't gotten what you sought. You've been disappointed. Or scared. Or hurt.

What have we done, in our discomfort?

For many of us, the answer is: we've prayed. Prayer -- be it routine or spontaneous, somehow brings comfort. We address ourselves to the divine. We thank, praise and in particular, petition God for things: for miracles, opportunities, noticeable blessings. We also ask God to help us in our hours of need, to protect us from the vicissitudes of life, to provide us with extra health, healing and resources. Baruch attah adonai: "Blessed are You" -- the basic building block of our prayer-- is designed to open up conversation between us and God.

Standing at the edge of the sea, the Israelites pray. They are in a panic. In their tumultuous hour of desperation and fright, the Israelites reach out to God. They plead hysterically for divine intervention. And we can imagine doing the same thing.

But even in their passionate, genuine moment of need, God doesn't want their prayers. Instead, God says: Don't pray now. This is no time for praise or thanks or petition. This is no time even for self-reflection. There is something much more appropriate and effective at this hour of need. Says God: "Tell the Israelites to go forward" (14:15).

Rashi, the classical Torah commentator, explains: "God said to Moses: 'Now is not the time to prolong prayer -- Israel is in distress!'" Prayer has great value. Spontaneous or set, brief or extensive, prayer is an outlet for the spirit. But sometimes it's just not the right thing, even from a divine perspective. Sometimes, action takes precedence. In the words of the Torah, sometimes the right thing to do is not to contemplate at all, but rather, "to go forward."

And that is just what the Israelites do. Following the divine command, they redirect their energies from thought to movement. From head and heart to feet. Ultimately, this is what enables them to cross the sea, and make the full transition from slavery to freedom.

"Out of the narrow straits, I called upon God; God answered me with expansiveness, and brought me relief" (Psalms 118:5). In difficult times, we may call out to God. But divine relief may come in a surprising form. Our Hebrew word signifying "to pray," l'hitpalel, means "to examine or judge one's self." But the divine answer is perhaps not found in heaven at all, but right here, within ourselves.

Shawn Fields-Meyer, of Los Angeles, is rabbi of Congregation Etz Hadar in Redlands. She is instructor of liturgy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

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