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Geshmack Dvar Torah of the Week: Prayers... work!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Prayers... work!

A piece from R' Yehoshua Hartman, from the Maharal (biography here), on a diyuk in Rashi.

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל הֹ
- Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

ויצעקו: תפשו אומנות אבותם. באברהם הוא אומר (בראשית יט כז) אל המקום אשר עמד שם, ביצחק (שם כד סג) לשוח בשדה, ביעקב (שם כח יא) ויפגע במקום: - cried out: They seized the craft of their ancestors [i.e., they prayed]. Concerning Abraham, it [Scripture] says: “to the place where he had stood before the Lord” (Gen. 19:27). 2 Concerning Isaac, [it is stated] “to pray in the field” (Gen. 24:63). Concerning Jacob, “And he entreated the Omnipresent” (Gen. 28:11).

The way this is first understood, this is a wonderful praise of the Jews. No doubt some people this week will focus on this point, that the Jews turned to their heritage, lineage and values in their time of need, and they prayed for salvation. You'd assume that this Rashi is singing the praise of the Jews, that they were so righteous to have prayed as their forefathers had.

There is a problem with this. What is Rashi really saying to us? What prayer is, the way our forefathers did? This is incorrect, as at 2:23 the pasuk says וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם, וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ; וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה - Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor.

Rashi does not explain that their cry was prayer (it obviously was), and does not explain the tradition of prayer that dates back to the Patriarchs. So what is our Rashi saying? To reinforce the question of what Rashi is trying to tell us by saying their fathers prayed, the very next pasuk is quite possible the most snide and sarcastic in Tanach: וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם - They said to Moses, Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? (14:11)

followed by

הֲלֹא זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְנוּ אֵלֶיךָ בְמִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר חֲדַל מִמֶּנּוּ וְנַעַבְדָה אֶת מִצְרָיִם כִּי טוֹב לָנוּ עֲבֹד אֶת מִצְרַיִם מִמֻּתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר
- Isn't this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert (14:11)

These people are clearly not the most righteous people; they go from prayer to wishing themselves back into slavery and rejecting G-d and Moshe in a heartbeat.

That is the point Rashi is bringing out here.
They did not pray because it was what they felt they should have done, they prayed because it was what their fathers would have done.

If we re-analyze Rashi's words, this is explicit, once we think about it from this angle; תפשו אומנות אבותם - They seized the craft of their ancestors? Their prayer was craftsmanship; it was work, not service!

R' Yitzchok Hutner (biography here) queries this; we say in morning prayers (in Vecharos, just before Az Yashir) how Hashem listened to our cries. But we have established that these crise were hardly the most noble, so what are mentioning this for in our prayers?

He answers with a parable, about a king who has a good friend, whose son is close to the prince. One day, whilst visiting the prince in the royal palace, he bursts into the king's chamber and starts running his mouth off about the area he comes from and things it needs. The king acquiesces, but it's not because of what the prince's friend said: it's because his father is the king's friend.

This also happens to be an explanation as to why we mention zchus avos in the opening paragraph of Shemona Esrei, that in spite of our lack of merit, our lineage should set us in good stead.

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