SALT - Thursday, 15 Shevat 5781 - January 28, 2021

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  • Rav David Silverberg
 
            The Torah in Parashat Beshalach tells of the terror that gripped Benei Yisrael on the shores of the Sea of Reeds as they saw Pharaoh’s chariots pursuing them.  They responded by crying out to God – “Va-yitz’aku Benei Yisrael el Hashem” (14:10).
 
            Rashi, citing the Mekhilta, comments, “Tafesu umanut avotam” – “They grabbed onto their forefather’s craft.”  Meaning, they followed the patriarchs’ example of turning to God in prayer.  Rashi proceeds to show that the three patriarchs all prayed, citing verses which Chazal understood as referring to the patriarchs’ prayers.  Avraham is described as having “stood” before God (Bereishit 19:27), referring to his impassioned plea on behalf of the city of Sedom.  Yitzchak went to the fields in the afternoon to “converse” (“la-suach” – Bereishit 24:63), and Yaakov “encountered” a place at dusk (“va-yifga” – Bereishit 28:11), and both these expressions are interpreted to mean prayer.
 
            Many later writers raised the question of what the Mekhilta here seeks to convey by drawing our attention to the fact that Benei Yisrael prayed when they were trapped on the seashore just as the patriarchs had prayed.  A second question that has been asked is why the Mekhilta would even compare Benei Yisrael’s prayer at this time of crisis to the prayers mentioned in the aforementioned verses.  These three verses are famously cited by the Gemara (Berakhot 26b) as indicating that the patriarchs instituted the three daily prayers – Avraham introduced the morning shacharit prayer; Yitzchak established the afternoon mincha service; and Yaakov instituted the recitation of arvit in the evening.  It turns out, then, that the Mekhilta here connects two very different forms of prayer: the desperate plea for help in times of distress – of which Benei Yisrael’s cries at the seashore are a quintessential example – and the fixed daily prayers.  The Mekhilta not only connects these two types of prayer, but goes even further, suggesting that Benei Yisrael’s cries at the seashore somehow stem from their patriarchs’ institution of the three daily prayers.  How can this be explained?  In what way can Benei Yisrael’s pleas for help be traced to the institution of shacharit, mincha and arvit which dates back to the patriarchs?
 
            It has been suggested that the Mekhilta’s comments precisely seek to teach one of the important purposes of daily prayer – to plant within our consciousness the intuition to turn to God in times of need.  Speaking to God three times each day has the effect of engendering, or reinforcing, what we might call the “prayer reflex,” the instinct to petition God when we face any sort of challenge or hardship.  It is because of the institution of daily prayer instituted by the patriarchs that Benei Yisrael naturally “grabbed onto” prayer as their intuitive response to the crisis they faced when they saw Pharaoh’s army approaching.  This institution is what implants within us the natural instinct to turn to God for help and to trust in His unlimited kindness and compassion in times when we might otherwise fall into despair and hopelessness.  Through our daily prayer regimen, we acquire the “craft” of prayer which we can then “grab onto” with hope and faith during periods of crisis.