Shiur #22: The Purpose of Prayer

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #22: The Purpose of Prayer


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



And God said to Moshe: "Why do you cry out to me?  Speak to the children of Israel, and they will go forward." (Shemot 14:15) 


At that moment (when the Jews seemed trapped between the Egyptians and the sea), Moshe was prolonging his prayer.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: "My beloved ones are drowning in the sea, and you are prolonging your prayer before Me?"


Moshe said: "Master of the Universe, what is in my power to do?" 


He said to him: "Speak to the children of Israel, and they will go forward." (Sota 37a)



Before commenting on this gemara, we should note that not every commentator agrees that Moshe had been engaged in supplication.  The Ibn Ezra points out that Hashem had already informed Moshe that Pharaoh would pursue them (see 14:4), so such pursuit should not have caused Moshe any concern.  He argues that the people had cried out to God, and God speaks to Moshe as the representative of the people. 


The Ramban raises the same objection as the Ibn Ezra, but he offers a different solution.  Even though Moshe knew that Pharaoh would chase them, he still did not know what he was supposed to do when that prediction came true.  Moshe cries out to Hashem in order to find out which course of action to take.  Hashem answers that Moshe should have simply asked the question; there is no need for such crying out.


An important point emerges from the Ramban's analysis.  Even when a person receives a prophetic promise, that person still does not know exactly how that promise will play itself out.  Thus, drama, suspense and difficulties remain part of the process, even if the process reflects the realization of a larger prophetic vision.  Were this not so, those engaged in helping actualize a prophecy would not be exhibiting any heroism; the Ramban's view, on the other hand, leaves individuals working with prophetic knowledge enough leeway to express their courage and wisdom.


Rashi paraphrases a midrash (Rabbi Eli'ezer, Mekhilta ibid., Ch. 3) which is quite similar to the gemara in Sota.  As Rashi puts Hashem's words, "This is not the time for a lengthy prayer, as Israel is in dire straits."  This approach differs from that of our earlier two commentators.  According to the Ibn Ezra, Moshe did not pray at all; the Ramban maintains that Moshe did indeed pray, but he should simply have asked God what to do.  Rashi, following Chazal, understands that the problem lies in the duration of Moshe's prayer in the given circumstances. 


This begs the question: what is wrong with a protracted prayer?  A simple explanation might be that dangerous situations call for an active response, and long entreaties delay taking the necessary actions.  If so, this gemara might relate to the need for people to solve problems using human initiative and working within the natural order.  The religious individual responds to danger with both prayer and human deeds.  Hashem tells Moshe that in such a situation, the need for action mandates a shortened prayer.


Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Pesach 14) discovers another approach in the commentary of the Maharal (Gur Aryeh, Shemot 14:15).  The Maharal contends that God would not save the Jewish people as long as Moshe was praying; Hashem therefore tells Moshe to stop so that He would be free to save them.  For the Maharal, the problem with a prolonged supplication is not that it gets in the way of human action; rather, it actually holds back divine action. 


Why should this be so?  If God wants to save the Jewish people, what prevents Him from doing just that, even if a great prophet has not yet completed his prayer?  Rav Hutner answers by citing a midrash in which Chazal compare the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people to that between a king and his daughter.  If the princess only turns to her father in times of distress, the king may actually invite the misfortune in order to cause the princess to turn to him for succor.  In the same way, God sometimes brings about a difficult situation so that the Jewish people will turn to Him in prayer.


This parable completely shifts our perspective.  We normally think that the prayer is only offered due to the distress; now, we can claim that the misfortune only comes to motivate the prayer.  If so, the Maharal's insight makes sense: had the sole purpose of the prayer been to rescue Israel from distress, God could do so without waiting for the Moshe to conclude; however, as the perilous situation is meant to generate prayer, God will not remove that jeopardy as long as the prayer continues.  Thus, God asks Moshe to stop so that He may save the people.


A profound idea about prayer emerges from Rav Hutner's approach.  Let us examine Rav Hutner's reading of one more biblical passage and the significance of his idea will become clear.  "I love God because He has heard the sound of my supplication.  For He has inclined His ear to me…" (Tehillim 116:1-2).  Rav Hutner asserts that "heard the sound" refers to fulfilling the item requested.  He then asks that the sequence seems to be backwards: surely a listener inclines the ear before hearing and fulfilling the request?


Resolving this dilemma depends upon a deeper understanding of the purpose of prayer.  We could think about it as solely a means for procuring our needs from God.  Alternatively, we could view the very act of turning to God as good in its own right, irrespective of whether or not we receive a positive response.  There is something important about a child turning to a parent in times of difficulty even when the parent remains unable to alleviate that distress.  According to the second approach, even in a case where all our entreaties fail to produce results, the endeavor maintains its value.  Of course, this does not negate the fact that we also hope for an affirmative answer to our requests. 


Rav Hutner suggest that we are sometimes happy that God fulfills our request simply because this indicates that He is indeed listening and close to us.  If so, we need to make a striking reversal: most people think that we want God to incline His ear to us so that He will fulfill our requests; the reality is that we want God to fulfill our requests so that it will become clear that an authentic relationship exists between our Maker and ourselves.  The sequence in Tehillim 116 makes sense because God's hearkening to our voice indicates that He has inclined His ear, the true end of prayer. 


Many different religious thinkers have addressed the question of the purpose of prayer.  Rav S. R. Hirsch writes of prayer as a form of introspection.  Rav J. B. Soloveitchik (in "Prayer, Redemption and Talmud Torah") writes of a person becoming aware of his or her genuine needs.  Employing the child-parent analogy, I have made brief reference to another possibility above.  The common denominator of these approaches is that the success or failure of a given prayer cannot be measured solely by the degree to which God accedes to our appeals.  While we hope to receive a positive response, the mere act of turning to the Ribbono shel Olam with requests represents a great religious value in its own right.