Faith Prayer and Faith Action

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Feb 7, 2020

My Rebbe, Harav Avigdor Nebenzahl, would always remind his students in the name of his Rebbeim, that faith in HASHEM should be the topic of discussion for parshas B’shalach. I hope to address this lofty subject this week as well, albeit a particular angle.


When the Children of Israel saw the Egyptians pursuing them after a few days of journeying out of Egypt, they raised their voices. These complaining individuals, identified as the “erev rav,” a mixture of rabble-rousers, many of whom were non-Jews who left Egypt with the Children of Israel, challenged Moshe for taking them out of Egypt merely to die by the hands of their former slave-owners.


Moshe then responded by addressing the nation:


"וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ הִֽתְיַצְב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת ה, אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם. ה' יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם וְאַתֶּ֖ם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן." (שמות י"ד:י"ג-י"ד)

"But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The LORD will battle for you; you hold your peace!”   (Shmos 14:13-14)

Sounds like a good response to those trying to inject doubt into the minds of the Children of Israel. But HASHEM challenges Moshe’s response in the very next verse.

"וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ " (שמות י"ד:ט"ו)

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward” (Shmos 14:15).

A basic reading here yields the following understanding. Moshe responds to the detractors by telling them, “You wait, and you will see what HASHEM is going to do for us. Today will be the end of the Egyptians. HASHEM will perform once again and battle for us. You keep quiet and just watch!

I imagine Moshe felt good saying this. He put the rebels in their place. To quote a phrase from the famous Miami Boys Choir song, B’siyata Dishmaya, “When HASHEM is at your side, every door is open wide!”

But then it seems HASHEM responds with a metaphorical gut punch. “Moshe, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Why are you davening? Get up and go do something!”

I’ve heard people use HASHEM’s response to Moshe as a proof that prayer alone does not solve issues.

Here’s how Rashi understands HASHEM’s response. Rashi makes several points.

First, Rashi notes, HASHEM’s response demonstrates that he was praying, something that was not conveyed by the Torah text in the narrative of the event. Second, Rashi points out, that when the Children of Israel are in distress, that is not the time to be engaged in elongated praying, but rather, to be doing something. Third, Rashi claims that HASHEM’s response teaches that Moshe should keep to his areas of work, and let HASHEM alone engage in His pod of productivity. Rashi cites a verse (Isaiah 45:11), where HASHEM expresses dismay that the prophets are implying that He is not as empathic “as He should be” regarding the predicament of the Children of Israel.”

Rashi then concludes with a fourth point. When HASHEM instructs Moshe to stop “screaming” and instruct the Children of Israel to travel, HASHEM was saying that the Children of Israel were waiting for Moshe to deliver words of inspiration, to inspire them to march forward, their faith in God in hand, despite the water in front of them and the Egyptian army at their flank. (This is how the Maharal understands this final comment of Rashi). Rashi concludes: the merit of their ancestors and the faith they have already demonstrated when leaving Egypt is enough grounds for Me (HASHEM) to save them by intervening in the Laws of Nature.

What are we to make of Rashi’s comments? Is prayer sometimes not the appropriate response? Why can’t prayer complement action? Are prayer and action mutually exclusive? Moshe is HASHEM’s proxy on earth. Why would he not speak in HASHEM’s name? He does so throughout the Torah? That is the primary function of a prophet!

Rabbi Chaim Volozhin explains that the Children of Israel are not being criticized for “too much davening!” Furthermore, HASHEM is not saying that action is the opposite of prayer. Of course they work hand-in-hand. The action described here is not devoid of HASHEM, per se, but is action inspired by faith. Faith in God allows one to march forth into the sea knowing that at that moment in history, HASHEM would save them. The action is the faith. The prayer is part of the action.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein suggested that the miracle of the sea splitting was understood. It was coded under “the exodus.” It would be absurd for the Children of Israel to be redeemed from Egypt and drown in the sea or be slaughtered by the Egyptian army. Rav Moshe suggests that the miracle of the sea falling under the general rubric of the miracles of the exodus helps explain the question of the Turei Even, who asks why do we not say a full Hallel on the seventh day of Pesach, when a blatant supernatural miracle took place? Rav Moshe answers that since the miracle at the Red Sea was not a new miracle, but part of one that had already started, it does not have the halachic status of a separate miracle.

There is one question on these verses that jumped out at me, one that I saved for the end.

If you were to follow the Torah verse to verse, you would see these three verses and a continuum of nothing more than 3 sentences. But dividing up the Torah into chapters was done by non-Jewish sources. Our mesorah divided up each Torah portion into seven sections. When listening to the Torah reading, the ba’al koreh stops after the first two verses, and begins the third aliyah with HASHEM’s rejoinder. Why is this?

Perhaps our sages did not want the verse understood as a punishment or admonishment of Moshe. Moshe’s comments were a response to some rabble-rousers. HASHEM’s response was to slightly correct what Moshe had said, not to contradict it.

Think of a teacher or a parent who needs to convey an accurate lesson, but also does not want to humiliate or embarrass the child. So you sensitively make the correction without highlighting the error. In our case, there really was not a factual error, but HASHEM wanted to suggest something else. Perhaps, that is why the stop was made before HASHEM’s response to Moshe.

Moshe’s response was not wrong; but it was imperfect. Only HASHEM is perfect.

The Torah sought to teach us a lesson in faith.

We do not suggest that prayer is not appropriate or effective. It is. Rashi claims that Moshe postponed the action. Action too can be a type of prayer. Maybe Moshe should have begun the prayer/action part earlier.  Prayer is communicating with HASHEM. Another way we execute the same objective is to commit actions of faith.

Dartmouth professor Susanna Heschel, reported on what her famous father, Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, wrote upon returning from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, AL. For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."  Famed escape slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass has a similar statement attributed to him. “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” (Some claim the quote was: “Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet.”)

Frederick Douglas embraced Christianity as a young man and then stopped believing. His comment about “praying with feet” was an attempt to substitute action for prayer. Rabbi Heschel, on the other hand was a believing Jew who passionately asserted the power of prayer (and wrote a powerful essay in 1945, entitled Prayer).

Faith in HASHEM is the bedrock of both action and prayer. One prays knowing that one’s entreaties will be heard by God. That is an act of great faith. Marching forward into a raging sea is also an exercise in faith. Moshe’s faith was manifest in prayer when, perhaps, it should been manifest in faith-action. This “error” is only alluded to in the Torah, and our sages placed a big stop between Moshe’s act and God’s response.

Prayer must constantly be our companion, because it brings God into our world. Action is an extension of faith. As faithful Jews, both must accompany us on all of our journeys.

May God answer our prayers and our actions!



There seems to be a critique of Moshe for extending prayer rather than committing action. Is this really so? How do we understand Rashi's words which imply some kind of wrong-doing on Moshe's part? What lesson about confronting fear and faith in HASHEM is being conveyed?

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