Beshalach-Prayer

As the Jews approach the Reed Sea, the Torah (in our parsha, Beshalach, Exodus 14:1) says, “And Pharoah approached and the Jews raised their eyes and saw the Egyptians traveling behind them, and they were very frightened and the Jews cried out to God.” Rashi explained, “They took up the profession of their forefathers.”

Lots of questions can be asked here, but the main ones are,
1) What needs to be explained here? It’s obvious from the words and the context that the Jews were in a difficult situation and decided to pray.

2) If the point was indeed that the Jews were in trouble and therefore prayed, the place to explain this was earlier in the exodus narrative, when Moses first complained to Pharoah, who responded by making the slavery worse.

3) How is it at all possible to describe prayer as a “profession?” If the Jews had a profession at that time, it was as shepherds (or as we said in a previous davar Torah, as brick makers).

4) Rashi continues his commentary and give examples of how the forefathers prayed. Abraham “went to the place where he stood.” Isaac “went out to pray in the field.” Jacob “met up in the placeŔ All of the verses quoted by Rashi only hint at prayer. If the point is to demonstrate how the forefathers prayed, there are much more obvious references. For example, there are verses (Gen.12:8), in which Abraham built altars and prayed. And Isaac (Gen. 25:21) prayed for his wife, Rivka, to become pregnant. And Yakov (Gen 32:10-13) prayed to G-d to save him from his brother, Esau. So, why does Rashi choose references that only hint at prayer, when there are obvious verses that prove how much the forefathers depended upon prayer?

The explanation: The main question that concerned Rashi was, why pray at all?
The Jews had already been promised that they would enter the land of Israel. In the verse (Ex. 17:3) and elsewhere to the forefathers, G-d promised the land of Israel to the Jews, to the extent that they left Egypt with the openly declared purpose of entering Israel. If they believed G-d’s promise to them, why pray? And if they didn’t believe, then what would be the purpose of prayer (even if the sea was in front of them and the Egyptian army behind)?

For that reason, Rashi explained, “they took up the profession of their forefathers.” The Jews prayed not only when they had a specific need, or were in some sort of trouble, but as a continuous habit, a profession and craft that they practiced at all times, whenever they felt like it. That is why Rashi chose the particular verses that he did. Rashi could have chosen other verses that more obviously demonstrated that the forefathers prayed (as mentioned before), but those verses demonstrated only that the forefathers prayed when in need or in dire straits. Rashi sought to prove that they prayed at all times, under all circumstances, and so he mentioned the verses wherein Abraham prayed to God before the akeida (sacrifice of his son), and Isaac before meeting Rivka, and Jacob before his dream of the ladder. These verses proved that the forefathers prayed as a habit and “profession,” and not because they needed something. And so the Jews at the Reed Sea also prayed because such was their habit and profession, and not from lack of faith in G-d. The Jews knew that the land of Israel was promised to them and that they were certain to enter. Nevertheless, caught between the sea and the Egyptians, they were in distress. Their faith in Gd was intact, but their prayer was an expression of their distress. People tend to pray spontaneously when they are in a difficult position. Nevertheless, their faith in God was intact, as demonstrated by later verses, when Rashi comments that the faith of the Jews in G-d was sufficient to propel them out of Egypt (Ex. 14:15).

It is now understood, also, why Rashi did not mention his explanation earlier in Exodus, when Moses first went to Pharoah, who responded by hardening his heart and making the Jewish slavery more difficult. Here, the Jews prayed because of the tremendous suffering they underwent. Thus, this verse would not have afforded a proof that the Jews pray at all times, whenever they feel like it.

The lesson for all of us? Prayer and all spiritual pursuit must be like a profession. Rather than an occasional pursuit, undertaken when we feel an urgent or important need, we must pray at all times because it’s the true “Jewish profession.” The same is true of Torah study and fulfillment of mitzvoth. The true way to undertake these activities is as a profession, something that we identify with to the extent that we can say, “I am one who prays, I am one who learns Torah, I am one who does mitzvoth.” The same is true of working and educating other Jews. It’s not for us to determine who should be educated and who should learn about Torah and mitzvoth. This is a profession to be taken on constantly and consistently with every Jew that we meet, trying to influence them with words and deeds that draw them closer to Torah, since this was the profession of our forefathers and foremothers as well.

Adopted from Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 11, page 52-54

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