We read in Parashat Beshalach the story of the miraculous splitting of the sea. Several days after Pharaoh sent Benei Yisrael out of Egypt, he reconsidered his decision and swiftly mobilized an army and pursued them, trapping them against the sea. The Torah relates that when Benei Yisrael saw the Egyptian army approaching, they “cried out to the Lord” (14:10), seemingly referring to prayer. But then the Torah says that the people turned to Moshe and angrily shouted, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?! What is this that you did to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not what we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Leave us alone and we will serve Egypt, for it is better for us to serve Egypt than to die in the wilderness!’” (14:11-12).
These two reactions, as many commentators have noted, appear contradictory. On the one hand, the people turned to God in heartfelt prayer, but on the other, they angrily berated Moshe for bringing them out of Egypt, stating that they would have preferred to remain as slaves in Egypt. This contradiction led the Mekhilta, as approvingly cited by the Ramban, to explain that different groups among the nation reacted differently. There were those who prayed to God for help, and there were those who vented their frustration by shouting at Moshe.
Others, however, reconcile the two responses described in the verses, based on Rashi’s remarks commenting to the phrase, “The Israelites cried out to the Lord.” Rashi writes, based on the Mekhilta, “They grabbed onto their forebears’ profession,” explaining that Benei Yisrael prayed just as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov had prayed. Many have raised the question as to Rashi’s intent, what he sought to add by noting that Benei Yisrael prayed just as the patriarchs had. A number of writers, including the Maharik and the Amar Nekei (commonly attributed to Rav Ovadya of Bartenura), understood Rashi’s remark to mean that the people did not, in fact, recite a heartfelt prayer. They prayed only because this is what traditionally has been done in times of crisis, but in truth, they were angry and resentful. According to this reading, Rashi sought to reconcile the seemingly contradictory descriptions by downplaying the value of the people’s prayer, stating that their prayers were perfunctory and emotionless, an imitation of their forefathers’ sincere supplications to God.
Irrespective of this question, Rav Yisrael of Modzhitz (in Divrei Yisrael) offers a different reading of Rashi’s comment. He notes Rashi’s unusual terminology, speaking of prayer as the “umanut” – “profession,” or “craft” – of the patriarchs, and of Benei Yisrael “grabbing” (“tafsu”) this “profession.” The Rebbe of Modzhitz explains that prayer is, indeed, a “craft,” an undertaking which, to be done properly, requires patience, discipline, hard work, preparation and experience. But when Benei Yisrael stood at the shores of the sea, they were caught off guard. They had felt safe and secure, having been miraculously brought out of Egypt, figuring that the horrors of Egyptian bondage were behind them. Suddenly, when they saw the Egyptian army rapidly approaching, they were stunned, and needed to pray quickly, without any time to prepare themselves. They “grabbed” onto prayer, crying to God the best they could without preparation. They practiced the “art” of prayer despite not having had time to properly prepare, and this prayer was lovingly accepted by God, because it was the best they could do under the circumstances.
The Rebbe of Modzhitz explains on this basis God’s statement to Moshe on the shores of the sea, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the Israelites that they should journey onward [into the sea]” (14:15). The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 21:5) comments that God was telling Moshe – who was praying at the time – that he had no need to pray, “because My children’s prayers already preceded yours,” meaning, God had already accepted Benei Yisrael’s prayers. The Rebbe of Modzhitz explains the Midrash to mean that although Benei Yisrael prayed without the appropriate level of concentration and feeling, nevertheless, their prayers were accepted because they prayed the best they could at that time. Although they merely “grabbed” onto the difficult, delicate “art” of prayer, their prayers achieved the desired result, because God expects from us only the best that we can do in any given situation.