Too Much Prayer

And Hashem said to Moshe: Why do you cry-out to me? Speak to Bnai Yisrael and they should travel. (Sefer Shemot 14:15)


I. Crisis at the Reed Sea

In the above passage, Hashem tells Moshe to stop praying to Him. It is odd that Hashem directs His prophet to not petition Him on behalf of His nation. To understand Hashem’s objection, we must understand the context of the passage. 


The Jewish people have left Egypt. They are traveling to Sinai and from there they will continue to the Land of Israel. Hashem tells Moshe that He will induce Paroh to reconsider his decision to release Bnai Yisrael. Paroh will amass an army and pursue Bnai Yisrael. Hashem will demonstrate His glory through the final destruction of Paroh and his mighty legions. 


Bnai Yisrael arrive at the shore of the Reed Sea. They see Paroh and his army in pursuit. Their path forward is blocked by the sea. They turn to Hashem, petitioning Him for their rescue. Also, they challenge Moshe, “Why bring us into the wilderness to be slaughtered by the sword?”


Moshe responds to the people. He tells them that they should not be afraid. Hashem will wage war on their behalf. He will completely destroy the Egyptians. Moshe joins the people in prayer to Hashem. 


This is the context of the passage. Hashem tells Moshe to not petition Him. He should simply lead the people forward. He then explains to Moshe that He will split the waters of sea. The Jewish people will pass between walls of water. Hashem will induce Paroh to lead his army into the parted waters and they will be destroyed.


II. Moshe should not pray

Why was Moshe told to stop praying? The nation faced a crisis. They were trapped between the sea and the Egyptians. Is it not appropriate to turn to Hashem when confronted with catastrophe? The commentators provide many responses.  We will focus on two that are offered by Rashi.


“We learn [from the passage] that Moshe stood and prayed. The Holy One Blessed be He said to him, “This is not the time for protracted prayer. Israel is in distress!” Another opinion [states] “Why do you cry-out to Me? This matter depends upon Me, not upon you.”” (Rashi, Sefer Shemot 14:15)


Both explanations present problems. Rashi’s first explanation is that Hashem criticized Moshe for engaging in protracted prayer, while the people are in danger. Did not Moshe intercede on behalf of the nation for forty days and nights after the sin of the Golden Calf? As in this instance, they were in great danger. Moshe feared Hashem might destroy them for their sin. Why was the intercession at Sinai appropriate but lengthy prayer at the Reed Sea not fitting?


Rashi’s second explanation is also troubling. Hashem told Moshe there is nothing for him to do. It is Hashem’s place to take action. Moshe certainly realized that Bnai Yisrael required Hashem’s intercession to be saved. He prayed for that intercession. Why did Hashem criticize him for such prayers?


III. The stakes at the Reed Sea

It is apparent that Moshe was not entirely confident that Bnai Yisrael would be rescued. He believed that their fate had not been completely determined. Hashem might allow them to be destroyed or harmed by the Egyptians. Hashem had assured him that He would destroy Paroh and his army. But Moshe had doubts. Since Hashem gave His assurance, the people had been overtaken by panic. They had accused him of bringing them into the wilderness to be destroyed.  Moshe asked, “Were his people still worthy of the miracles Hashem had foretold?” Moshe prayed to Hashem to rescue His people and overlook their shortcomings.[1] 


With this background, let us first consider Rashi’s second answer. Hashem responded to Moshe that He will provide salvation. There is nothing for Moshe to do. He explained to Moshe that he was misinterpreting the situation. The people will be saved. Their rescue is not in doubt. Moshe does not need to pray on their behalf. Hashem’s plan is materializing. Moshe must allow it to reveal itself. In other words, there is no real crisis. The plan is unfolding according to Hashem’s design.


IV. Types of prayer

Rashi’s first answer is that Hashem criticized Moshe for engaging in protracted prayer while the nation is in distress. Why was this wrong? Should not Moshe pray for them until they are rescued? The hint or key to understanding Rashi’s position is recognizing that Hashem did not criticize Moshe for praying. He reproved him for engaging lengthy prayer. Prayer was appropriate; extended prayer was not. 


Rashi’s position reflects an idea developed more fully by Rambam – Maimonides. Rambam explains that when the Jewish people are in distress they must turn to Hashem in prayer.


“This is part of the process of repentance. When an affliction occurs and they cry-out and sound the trumpets[2], they all know that the misfortune came upon them because of their actions… This causes the affliction to be removed from them. But if they do not cry-out and sound the trumpets; rather, they say, “This is a natural event that has occurred to us. This affliction is happenstance”, this is cruelty. It causes them to cleave to their wicked actions. It adds afflictions upon the affliction…” (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Hilchot Taaniyot 1:2-3)


Rambam explains that when confronted with a crisis, we respond with prayer. He explains that our prayers are part of the process of repentance. We are recognizing that our afflictions express Hashem’s will and are a result of our faults and sins. This recognition hopefully leads to repentance. 


Rav Yisroel Chait observed that it is interesting that Rambam does not say that the affliction is removed through repentance. He says we earn reprieve by recognition that our suffering is the consequence of our behaviors. Apparently, Rambam’s position is that repentance is not required to cancel the punishment. Only the first step on the path of repentance is necessary. We must recognize that we have brought our suffering upon ourselves through our sins.[3] 


Rambam is explaining that prayer is not only petitioning of Hashem. It is an acknowledgment of His role in our lives and our dependency upon Him. Typically, when suffering we petition Hashem for His intervention. Rambam is asserting that the fundamental element of these prayers is not our fervent plea for rescue. It is our recognition that our suffering is a consequence of our sins. To summarize, prayer is not just petition. It is also acknowledgment of Hashem’s role in our lives.


V. The message of Moshe’s prayer

According to Rashi, Hashem told Moshe, “You have prayed enough.” He told Moshe that he does not need to plead for the rescue of the people. He needs only to ask Hashem – to demonstrate to the people that their approaching rescue is His response to their plight. Prayer is necessary. Without it the people may make the same error as the Egyptians. They may conclude that the winds parting the waters are an unusual but natural event. Moshe prayed before the people and then the water parted. The people recognized that they were being saved through Hashem’s miracle.


VI. Lessons from Rashi, #1

Bnai Yisrael believed they faced destruction. They were trapped between the sea and their enemies. Moshe was concerned. Hashem responded, “This is part of My plan. Yes, the Egyptians are directly behind you. But this will encourage them to follow you into the sea. They will be at your heels when the walls of the sea collapse upon them.”


The lesson is familiar but important. Crisis does mean we are abandoned. We do not know Hashem’s plan. Sometimes a crisis is the prelude to salvation. This does not mean that real tragedies do not occur. It means we should not lose hope when we experience a period of distress. Our distress may be the darkness before the dawning of a bright day. 


VII. Lessons from Rashi, #2 

Rashi’s second lesson is less obvious and more profound. Moshe was required to pray before the sea parted. His prayer was important because through it he demonstrated that Hashem parted the water. We are required to pray repeatedly. We may wonder why these persistent entreaties are required. Rashi’s comments provide an important insight. In prayer, we petition Hashem. But this is not the only function of prayer. Rashi teaches us that prayer is also a statement. We acknowledge our dependence upon Hashem and that our blessings are bestowed by Him.


Our ancestors at the Reed Sea needed prayer to recognize that Hashem was parting the sea. We also need prayer to recognize that our blessings come from Hashem. We easily forget Hashem’s role in our lives. We need to constantly remind ourselves of our dependence upon Hashem and that He grants us the blessings we enjoy. We need constant prayer.

[1] See comments of Sforno. Sforno attempts to resolve a difficult problem. Moshe seems to be in doubt of Bnai Yisrael’s rescue. However, Moshe had assured Bnai Yisrael that Hashem would rescue them from Paroh and the Egyptians. The authenticity of a prophet is determined by the accuracy of his prophecies. If positive prophecies do not come true, then the claimant is deemed to be a false prophet (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodai HaTorah 10:1-2).  How could Moshe be uncertain of Bnai Yisrael’s rescue? He had shared with them his prophecy that Hashem would save them? Sforno responds that Moshe was confident they would be saved. However, he feared that they would not follow him into the parted waters of the sea. His turned to Hashem asking for His assistance in motivating the people to enter the sea. Hashem responded, “Why do you cry-out to me? You misunderstand the people. They will follow you.” According to Rashi, it seems Moshe was not confident that the people would be saved. Rashi does not explain how he would resolve the difficulty addressed by Sforno.

[2] These trumpets were sounded in the Tabernacle and in the Temple at times of affliction. They are an expression of prayer. 

[3] Rav Yisroel Chait, author’s personal notes.