Parshat Beshalach תשע”ט

 The Jewish people left Egypt on the 15th of Nissan and travelled for seven days until they reached the Yam Suf (the Red Sea, or, more accurately, the Reed Sea). At that point, there was no where to go. They could not travel forward because the sea was in front of them. They could not go backwards because the Egyptians were behind them. And they could not go to the sides because, the Midrash informs us, wild animals stood ready to tear them apart. They were between the hammer and the anvil. What could they do?

On the verse that says, “And they screamed to Hashem,” Rashi explains:

ויצעקו – (מכילתא) תפשו אומנות אבותם. באברהם הוא אומר (בראשית יט) אל המקום אשר עמד שם. ביצחק (שם כד) לשוח בשדה. ביעקב (שם כח) ויפגע במקום

They employed the vocation of their fathers: Avraham established the morning prayer, Shacharit, Yitzchak established the afternoon prayer, Mincha, and Yaakov established the evening prayer, Arvit.

In short, they prayed. Prayer is our secret weapon.

Yet, after all that the Jewish people had been through, why did Hashem again put them into such a difficult situation? The Midrash provides the background:

כיון שראו ישראל שהיו מוקפין מג’ רוחות הים סוגר והשונא רודף והחיות מן המדבר תלו עיניהם לאביהם שבשמים וצעקו להקב”ה שנאמר ויצעקו בני ישראל אל ה’ ולמה עשה הקב”ה להם כך אלא שהיה הקב”ה מתאוה לתפלתן אמר ריב”ל למה”ד למלך שהיה בא בדרך והיתה בת מלכים צועקת לו בבקשה ממך הצילני מיד הלסטים שמע המלך והצילה לאחר ימים ביקש לישא אותה לאשה היה מתאוה שתדבר עמו ולא היתה רוצה מה עשה המלך גירה בה הלסטים כדי שתצעוק וישמע המלך כיון שבאו עליה הלסטים התחילה צועקת למלך אמר לה המלך לכך הייתי מתאוה לשמוע קולך כך ישראל כשהיו במצרים והיו משעבדים בהם התחילו צועקים ותולין עיניהם להקב”ה שנאמר (שמות ב) ויהי בימים הרבים ההם וגו’ ויזעקו מיד וירא אלהים את בני ישראל התחיל הקב”ה מוציאן משם ביד חזקה ובזרוע נטויה והיה הקב”ה מבקש לשמוע את קולם פעם אחרת ולא היו רוצין מה עשה גירה לפרעה לרדוף אחריהם שנאמר ופרעה הקריב מיד ויצעקו בני ישראל אל ה’ באותה שעה אמר הקב”ה לכך הייתי מבקש לשמוע קולכם שנאמר (שיר ב) יונתי בחגוי הסלע השמיעני קול אינו אומר אלא השמיעני את קולך אותו הקול שכבר שמעתי במצרים לכך כתיב השמיעני את קולך כיון שהתפללו אמר הקב”ה למשה מה אתה עומד ומתפלל כבר קדמה תפלתן של בני לתפלתך שנאמר מה תצעק אלי

Once the Jewish people saw that they were surrounded on all three sides, the sea in front, the enemy behind, and the animals on the sides, they raised their eyes to Hashem and cried out in prayer. Why did Hashem do this to them? Because Hashem wanted to hear their prayers again. Reish Lakish said, “It is like the king who was travelling when he heard the voice of a princess crying out, ’Please save me from these bandits!!’ The king saved her, and after a few days decided he wanted to marry her. He wanted her to speak with him, but she refused. The king thought to himself, ’I know how to get her to speak to me.’ What did he do? He staged some bandits to attack her so that she should cry out again, and he would once again be there to save her. When the bandits came, she started crying out to the king to save her. The king said to her, ’This is all I wanted, for you to speak to me.’”

Similarly, when the Jewish people were under the tyranny of the Egyptians, they turned to Hashem and cried out to Him to save them from their plight. Hashem listened to their prayers and began redeeming them. Hashem wanted to hear their voice again, but they refused to speak with Him. What did Hashem do? He sent Pharaoh after them so that they would once again cry out to Hashem to save them. When they did, Hashem told them, “This is all I wanted, to hear your voices cry to me once again.”

Our Sages point out that this Midrash provides us with a valuable insight as to how, so to speak, Hashem works, which, in a way, turns things upside down.

When a person encounters a difficult situation, for example a scary diagnosis, conventional thinking is that to remedy the situation, we need pray to Hashem to remove the problem. This Midrash reveals that the true source of the problem is that Hashem wants to hear our prayers, and since He is not hearing them, He staged the entire diagnosis to get us to pray to Him.  Had we been praying to Him properly all along, we would not have needed this wake-up call to get us to start praying.

When matters are as we expect them to be, namely, we are healthy, and all of our needs are met, we tend to think that we don’t need divine intervention. We have everything under control. For what do I need Hashem?

Nothing could be further from reality. Things are as they are only because Hashem in His great goodness has granted us these blessings. Every blessing that we have constitutes a special gift from Hashem. And Hashem, being so patient with us, gives and gives, until we mistakenly think that we have it coming to us and that this is the way it should, and always, will be.

This is where a person runs into trouble. Hashem reaches the point where He says, “This fellow is totally ignoring Me and not talking to Me. I need to wake him up! I know how to get him to talk to me!”

But why does Hashem care if we talk to Him or not? Why does He pressure us into talking to Him? Does He need our attention?

What we must always bear in mind is that Hashem is perfect; there is absolutely nothing that we can give to, or subtract from, Hashem. Hashem’s essence cannot be affected by anything, and it makes no difference what we do, for He does not benefit from our mitzvot, and He does not suffer from our sins.

So why does He covet our prayers?

Hashem created a person to receive the most sublime pleasure possible in the world to come. He put us in this world first, to earn that reward through the good choices that we would make throughout our lifetimes. Imagine the tragedy of a person living his whole life and not connecting to Hashem even once! Life was all about him; what he did, what he has, and where he stood in the eyes of the world. When this person dies, leaving behind all of his material possessions, he is for the first time going to meet his Maker. But now it is too late. There is nothing now that this person can do to salvage his life, which was spent in pursuit of worldly goods that have no value where he is now. The agony this person is going to feel is beyond description.

I would imagine that he would complain to Hashem, “Why didn’t You tell me? Why didn’t You do something to me to set me on the right path? How could You let this happen to me?”

This tragic result is also the last thing that Hashem wants. He created man to receive pleasure, not torment. And to that end, He sent numerous messages to the person trying to notify him that He is here, but the person wasn’t interested in picking up the cues, ignoring every one. Then Hashem sent him a very strong message in the form of a difficult diagnosis.

This does not mean to say that this is the only reason a person gets sick, or encounters difficulties in life. Hashem has a unique connection to each person in the world, and has a reason for everything He does. However, if something happens, this approach to matters is something we should seriously consider.

Walking down the street one day, a college professor happened to walk right into the         middle of a gang fight. He was hit in the back by a bullet and became a paraplegic. Despite numerous surgeries and therapies, he remained confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. At that point he said, “Now I really need to figure out what life is all about!” Then he burst out laughing and said, “That was the dumbest thing I ever said! When I was healthy and well, and had all my faculties, I didn’t need to figure out what life is about; but now that I am a paraplegic, I do?”

In any case, he proceeded to figure out what life was about and why he was put on this earth and ultimately investigated his Jewish religion. He became religious and led a very meaningful life from his wheelchair. He later observed, “It’s better to be a paraplegic and know what life is about than to be healthy and not have a clue.” He took his wake-up call seriously and used it to turn his life around.

This is why Hashem wants us to cry out to Him in prayer. He wants to have a relationship with us while we are down here on this earth so that we can continue it when we ultimately meet Him. If we didn’t create it while here, we can’t create it there.

When the Jewish people were trapped at the Yam Suf, Rashi told us that they deployed the secret weapon of their forefathers, prayer: Shachrit, Mincha, and Arvit.

The Sages pose a question on Rashi. Their prayer at the Sea was of a different type; like a prayer from a foxhole!! This was prayer in a time of extreme difficulty, stress, and fear. How does Rashi compare it to an “everyday” Shachrit, Mincha, or Arvit?

The answer is that from here we learn the proper posture and mindset that one must assume when praying a “daily” Shachrit, Mincha, and Arvit! Our thoughts and feelings must be like a prayer from a foxhole, where we feel totally helpless and with no option other than Hashem, because the reality is that we have no other option. We are dependent on Hashem for everything that we have; and just because we have it now provides no guaranty that we will have it tomorrow. We are constantly dependent on Hashem’s lovingkindness and love. When we appreciate that we receive everything that we have from Hashem, and express this to Him thrice daily in our prayers, Hashem won’t need to send us a wakeup call. Additionally, through our daily prayers, we develop a very deep and strong relationship with Hashem through the gratitude that we feel and express to Him on a constant basis for all that He does for us. It will be ever stronger in the next world as we bask in the sublime pleasure that Hashem bestows upon us for our good deeds and for the holy way in which we lived our lives.

The Talmud Tractate Berachot (55a) says,

תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף נה/א

ואמר רב חסדא חלמא בישא עדיף מחלמא טבא

Rav Chisda said: It is better for a person to have a bad dream than to have a good one.

Why? Rashi explains that a bad dream brings a person to do teshuva (repentance). A person seeing himself in a bad situation in his dream becomes shaken up; it jolts him out of his stupor to do teshuva to avoid the visualized consequences of his dream. A good dream allows him to think that all is well and that no change is necessary.

Sometimes Hashem sends us a “bad dream” in a different way.

All of a sudden, something starts bothering a person. It’s an ache where he never felt one before. What’s this from? he wonders. The doctor says, “It could be nothing or it could be something very serious. We need to do some tests to figure it out.” The person goes through a battery of tests and then waits for the results. This is the bad dream. A dream is just a dream that has no tangible effect on anything; but it could portend a calamity down the road. If a person does teshuva, as Rashi suggests, he can often avoid the whole thing. On the other hand, if he doesn’t respond, the eventuality may come true.

Similarly, the new pain that he is feeling is Hashem’s wakeup call to him. Hashem is telling him, “You need to give Me more attention, I don’t have enough of a relationship with you.” If a person responds appropriately, turning to Hashem in prayer, he can avoid the entire problem.  This was all that Hashem wanted, and why He brought him the pain in the first place. If, however, if he ignores Hashem’s overture to him, he may find himself in deep trouble. Therefore, before the results come back from the tests, he should turn to Hashem and pray fervently to Him that the pain be nothing. This is what Hashem really wants. Then, when the results come back negative, he should not make the mistake of thinking that there never was anything there. There was something that could have been very serious, but because he responded properly, Hashem, having received the desired result, didn’t need to make it into something. If, however, he doesn’t respond, he may find himself with something very serious. Once diagnosed, it will take a miracle to remove it, and one cannot expect Hashem to do a miracle for him.

This works because, as the Midrash told us, Hashem wanting our prayers is the reason for the problem, not the other way around. When we know how, so to speak, Hashem operates, and what He really wants from us, we can react with the remedy that will address the real problem instead of taking all kinds of pills or applying all kinds of band-aids that just treat the symptom and not the problem.

Appreciating this concept, that Hashem wants to have a relationship with each of us, may answer many questions about things that happen to us in life. Seeing them in this light, that they are overtures from Hashem, may guide us to the correct path as to how to deal with them in the most productive and beneficial way.

This does not mean to say that we have to wait for a rude wakeup call before we respond to Hashem with our prayers. We can take a closer look at all the blessing that we have in our lives and use that as an instrument for the relationship with Hashem. With a little conscious thought, we can transform anything: every bite we take, every time we notice and appreciate a clear blue sky or a precious baby smiling, our ability to open and close our hands at will, into an opportunity to connect with Hashem. When we contemplate all the good that Hashem bestows upon us, even though we are so undeserving of it, we should be filled with the deepest possible feelings of thanks and gratitude. We can express this appreciation by saying a blessing on the food that we eat, or thanking Hashem for it after we eat with the blessing after the food (all of which are found in a daily prayer book). The expression of thanks to Hashem doesn’t even have to use the formal words of a specific prayer. Our heartfelt gratitude to Hashem for all the good that He gives us can be expressed in our own words, as long as they are sincere. This is the easiest ways to create a deep and lasting relationship with Hashem, since we can never thank Him enough for all of the good that He does for us.

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