When prayers alone aren’t enough
Beshalach — Exodus 13:17-17:16
Parashat Beshalach picks up the story soon after the Israelites have left Egypt. Being a very slow learner, Pharaoh once again changes his mind about letting the Israelites go, and he and his men chase after them, catching up to the former slaves at the Sea of Reeds.
God splits the sea, the Israelites cross on dry land, and their pursuers drown. The people respond with the magnificent “Shirah,” the Song of the Sea in praise and thanksgiving to God.
And this parasha contains one of my favorite scenes in the Torah. The Israelites are trapped between the sea and the advancing Egyptian chariots and they are terrified. They confront Moses: “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?”
Moses responds: “Have no fear! Stand by and witness the deliverance the Lord will work for you today.”
But God sees it differently. “Mah titzok elai?” (Why do you cry out to Me?). “Tell the Israelites to go forward.”
As Rashi notes, quoting the Mekhilta, “now is not the time to prolong prayer.” Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher (13th-14th century, Spain) elaborates: “According to the plain meaning of these words, “elai” (to Me) means that the matter does not depend on God at all, but upon Israel.” In other words, faith in God is important, but it’s not enough to trust that “Hashem will provide.” Faith has to be accompanied by action.
Rabbenu Bahya also points out that in the word “elai,” the first two letters spell “el,” which means “to” or “toward,” while the last letter, yud, is the first letter of God’s most personal name. And so, he relates the mystical tradition that the Israelites were called upon to rise to a higher level, a level in which faith is made real through action, to rise to the level of yud, to be — if you will — a little more God-like.
And, indeed, when the Israelites turned their faith into action by moving forward, the sea parted for them, the Egyptians drowned, and the Israelites were saved.
The lesson for us is obvious — when one is faced with hardship or trouble, prayer is necessary but not sufficient. When someone is ill, we pray for healing, but we also make sure the one who is sick has the best available medical care and follows the doctor’s instructions. When someone is unemployed, he prays for sustenance, but must also network, send out resumes, and follow every lead to find a new job. When someone has caused pain or humiliation to another person, it’s not sufficient to pray for forgiveness. He must also do the very difficult work of teshuvah, going to the one he has hurt and admitting what he did, apologizing, and asking to be forgiven.
We all know this. There is a time to pray and a time to stop praying and get moving. As the World War II song had it, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.