Question: Is there a special prayer or specific role for prayer when the totality of the Jewish people is in danger?
Answer: The above question is from the recently-published sefer, Jewish Prayer: The Right Way, written by my dear friend and colleague, Jewish Press halachah columnist, Horav Yaakov Simcha Cohen zt”l, whose shloshim is approaching. His passing is a great loss for his family and Klal Yisrael. I am pained by his passing and by the thought of all my future missed opportunities of learned discussion with such a talmid chacham, a scholar imbued with both keen intellect and Yir’at Shomayim.
The question above clearly speaks to the current situation in which Klal Yisrael presently finds itself.
Rabbi Cohen answers: “A cursory reading of Torah verses and Rashi’s commentary suggest that prayer may not always be the most propitious response to danger.
“A case in point is Klal Yisrael’s reaction to the dangers faced at the Red Sea. In front of them were the raging, insurmountable waters of the sea; behind them were the advancing, ruthless soldiers of Pharaoh. The Jews were frightened. What were they to do? What was our leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, doing at that time? The Torah records that G-d said to Moshe, ‘Why are you crying unto Me, speak to the Children of Israel that they go forward’ (Exodus 14:15 – parashat Beshalach). Simply put: stop praying, take action.
“Rashi clearly states that Moshe was praying to G-d. The Almighty’s response, according to Rashi, was twofold: (1) When Israel is faced with danger, it is not appropriate to prolong prayers (leha’arich b’tefillah), and (2) ‘Why pray to Me? The matter depends upon Me, not you.’ Both interpretations give the impression that prayer is not the best reaction to danger.
“The first comment of Rashi is that in times of danger, prayer may be necessary, but it should be short and to the point. One should not ‘prolong prayers,’ but rather provide action or concrete responses. There is no definition of how much time may be properly devoted to prayer, or, better put, no guide as to exactly when prayer becomes excessive. What is clear is that prayer by itself is not the proper response to danger. Danger necessitates a combination of both prayer and action.
“Rashi’s second comment goes against the grain of the religious mindset. It notes that the decision to save Jews is a Divine prerogative that is not dependent on prayer. Of concern, accordingly, is whether one should pray at all in times of crisis. If prayer does not effect any favorable Divine reaction, then perhaps one should not pray. A prayer that is not germane to affecting a Divine response seems to be a futile endeavor.
“HaGaon HaRav Yitzchak Hutner, z”l, late Rosh Yeshiva of Rabbi Chaim Berlin Rabbinical Academy, contends that the true meaning of this commentary of Rashi may be derived from yet another citation. Klal Yisrael’s reaction to the crisis at the Red Sea was that ‘they cried out unto G-d’ (Exodus 14:10). Rashi says, ‘They seized upon the occupation of their forefathers.’ To demonstrate that prayer was, indeed, the occupation of the Patriarchs, Rashi cites verses to note that Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov all (at one time or another) prayed. At issue is the rationale for Rashi (citing the Mechilta) to inform us that Klal Yisrael’s prayer was simply an observance of the profession of the Patriarchs. What purpose is there for Rashi to so inform us?
“Perhaps, suggests Rav Hutner, the statement that prayer was the occupation of the Patriarchs defines the essential, unique nature of this prayer. For there is yet another problem relating to this prayer of Klal Yisrael. The Torah informs us that ‘they cried out to G-d.’ The response was, ‘G-d will fight for you and you shall hold your peace [be silent]’ (Exodus 14:14).
“In other words, the Divine reaction to Klal Yisrael’s prayer was that they should stop praying. Thus, the prayer was futile. If so, why pray altogether? To this our Sages answer that the prayer at the Red Sea was a unique form of prayer. It was a prayer in which ‘Klal Yisrael seized upon the occupation of their forefathers.’ Namely, this was not comparable to other prayers.
“The purpose of this prayer was to establish the holy lineage of Klal Yisrael, not to make a specific request of G-d. Let us take the example of someone who presents a request to a king. The king’s response at first is that under normal conditions, there is no valid reason for him to heed the request. But, during the audience, the petitioner points to his pedigree. He mentions the name of his father and remarks that the father was a friend of the king. Accordingly, the king assures the son that his request will be heeded, solely on the merit of his own friendship with the father. So, too, by Klal Yisrael.
“When they were told to ‘be silent,’ the intention was not to imply that their prayers were in vain. No, the prayers manifested their connection to the Patriarchs. Accordingly, no further prayers were needed. Once Jews relate their relationship (yichus) to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, G-d responds favorably. The purpose of this prayer was to crystallize that once the lineage was noted, further prayer was not needed. The response was not due to the inherent good qualities of Klal Yisrael, but to their lineage.
“Whenever Klal Yisrael in its entirety is in danger, a special form of prayer emerges, a prayer based not on the merits of the petitioners, but on their relationship with the Patriarchs. Such a response results in Divine action and a cessation of the necessity for further human prayers. As Rashi says, ‘The matter depends upon Me, not you.’ (An elaboration of this theme is noted in Pachad Yitzchak, Purim, ma’amar 19.)
Finally, Rabbi Cohen writes, “In the three major prayers of each day, the Amidah commences with reference to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Perhaps such prayers are based upon this consideration. When Klal Yisrael is in danger, it appears necessary to make note of the Patriarchs. They are the secret weapon of Klal Yisrael. Mention of our ancestors brings about Divine salvation.”
Indeed, in summation, our Shemoneh Esreh that we pray three times daily is our strongest weapon. Of course, the Psalms and the Tefillah for the Tzahal (Prayer for the Israel Defense Forces) that we recite are vital. Yet, we must be sure to strengthen our concentration and contemplation when we recite the Amidah, and we should seek out as many of our brethren as possible to join our prayer services. Let us beseech the Heavens for the peace of Israel.
About the Author:
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.
If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.