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Parashat Beshalah

January 12, 2011

By Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

With Pharaoh and his army in hot pursuit, Parashat Beshalah describes the Children of Israel crying out to God, “In great fear the Children of Israel cried out to the LORD.” (Exodus 14:10). No answer came from God, so they then turned to Moses, “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?'” (Exodus 14:11). They claimed that it would have been better if they stayed in Egypt, “For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Exodus 14:12). Moses responded and attempted to raise their spirits, “‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still'” (Exodus 14:13-14).

After trying to allay the Children of Israel’s fears, Moses was surprisingly reprimanded by God. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Children of Israel to go forward'” (Exodus 14:15). Why did God choose to answer Moses in such a manner? When the Children of Israel cried out to God (Exodus 14:10) there was no such reprimand. What did Moses do to merit such a response? I want to look at two explanations that are found in early rabbinic midrashim.

In the Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai the following is brought in the name of Rabbi Eliezer:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “My children are in distress, with a closed-up sea [before them] and the enemy pursuing them [from behind]. But you stand and multiply prayer before me? Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” (Exod. 14:15) For he [i.e. Rabbi Eliezer] would say, “There is a time to cut [prayer] short, and there is a time to lengthen [prayer]. ‘O God, pray heal her!’ (Num. 12:13) – behold, [this is an example of] cutting short. ‘I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights’ (Deut. 9:9)-behold, [this is an example of] lengthening” (ed. Nelson, p. 122).

In the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael there is a slightly different version of this midrash.

God then said to Moses: Moses, My children are in distress, the sea is closing [around them] and the enemy is pursuing [them], and you stand so long praying? Moses said before Him: What then should I be doing? Then He said to him: “Lift up your staff ¦,” (Exod. 14:16) you should be exalting, glorifying and praising, uttering songs of laudation, adoration and glorification, of thanksgiving and praise to Him in whose hands are the fortunes of war (based on ed. Lauterbach, vol. 1, p. 223).

Both of these midrashim are attempting to answer the question, “What is the proper balance between prayer and action?”

According to the Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, while prayer is an important component of our response to moments of distress, our prayers should be in proper proportion to what can be accomplished through other means. It was only natural that Moses should cry out to God in prayer and beseech him to save the Children of Israel. This is exactly what the Children of Israel themselves did, yet according to this midrash, Moses should have shortened his prayer and tried to help the Israelites through other means. God wanted a more activist leadership from Moses, “Tell the Children of Israel to go forward'” (Exodus 14:15).

The second version of the midrash illustrates another problem. After God rebuked him, Moses asked, “What should I be doing?” Sometimes it is not that we don’t know that we should be doing something else, we just don’t know what that something else should be.

It is only natural that when a person is faced with a difficult or challenging situation, they might be unsure of what to do. How many times have we found ourselves in a situation and, like Moses, asked, “What should I be doing?” Often our answer is to pray, but we must realize, that just as sometimes our prayers should be lengthened, at other times, they need to be cut short.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky teaches at the Academy for Jewish Religion and asks everyday whether he is praying too much or too little.