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A Weekday Taste of Torah

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

For the Torah Portion of Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Does Prayer Work?

I recently had a conversation with a member of my synagogue who discounted the effects of prayer in the healing process. “Why say a healing prayer for my relative? God’s not going to be swayed on her behalf by my worship.”

And I had to agree. From what we believe today, God does not intervene in the affairs of the world, whether requested or not.

But this does not mean that our prayers are ineffective. And the Israelites, in this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, demonstrate this point.

We read in the Torah this week that the Israelites have departed from Egypt, and God has led them to the sea that will eventually part for them.

According to the text, God carefully manipulates this situation:

  • God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and causes him to regret his decision to let the Israelites leave.
  • God brings the Israelites to the sea, so that they appear to be hemmed in against the raging waters.
  • The Pharaoh makes the decision to bring the Israelites back to Egypt.
  • After the deaths of all the animals of Egypt during the Ten Plagues, God allows Pharaoh to wondrously find six hundred horses to enable Pharaoh, along with six hundred charioteers, to pursue the Israelites to the final confrontation at the sea.

 

There by the sea, the Israelites are oblivious to God’s machinations, and imagine only the worst possible outcome, which is their recapture and return to Egypt. The last resort is for them to cry out to God:

“Pharaoh drew near [to the Israelites by the sea], and the people of Israel looked up and – behold – the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the people of Israel cried out to the Eternal” (Exodus 14:10).

A Third-century midrash interprets this cry of panic and fear not as distress, but rather as prayer, and reminds us that each of our three Patriarchs offered prayed at crucial moments in their lives:

“Concerning Abraham, scripture says of Abraham, ‘to the place where he had stood [in prayer] before the Eternal’ (in concern for Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 19:27); concerning Isaac, it is stated, ‘he went to pray in the field’ (to find a wife, Genesis 24:63); and concerning Jacob, it is related, ‘He prayed to the Omnipresent’ (in wonderment of the ladder extending to heaven and his finding the doorway to God’s abode, Genesis 28:11)” (Midrash Tanhuma).[1]

For the Israelites, their “cries” might not have directly affected God; the Divine One’s plans were in motion long before they arrived at the seashore. But their entreaties inspired one another to maintain courage and to await ‘the redemption of God’ (Exodus 14:13). It also strengthened those who took the first tentative steps into the sea, between the walls of water – on the right and on the left – that had never been seen before.

In a similar way, our prayers might not persuade God to change the Divine Mind on matters already destined to occur. But they can help us maintain courage at moments of doubt, and they can encourge us find our own solutions to our problems.

 

[1] Midrash Tanhuma Genesis, Mikeitz 10:11

October 16, 2019 17 Tishrei 5780