“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward’” Exodus 14:15


With Pharaoh’s Egyptian army trailing behind and the sea in front of them, the Israelites were trapped with no place to escape. The frightened people complained “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness?’” (Exodus 14:11-12).

According to rabbinic tradition, Moses offers a lengthy prayer to God for a solution (Talmud Sotah 37a). God doesn’t want to hear his cries but instead instructs Moses to lead them forward.

Why does God disapprove of Moses’s prayer, telling him to move rather than “crying out to me”? Further, the Passover Haggadah emphasises that the Israelites were redeemed from slavery because “they cried out to God”.

Surely prayer is an admirable endeavour in a time of national crisis? God’s surprising response, which criticises Moses for “crying out,” teaches an important lesson. There is a time for prayer and there is a time for action. However, making a lengthy prayer when people are in clear danger is not helpful and does not get a stamp of approval from the Almighty.

A similar teaching is reported in the talmudic story about Rabbi Yossi who entered a Second Temple ruin in Jerusalem to pray rather than getting distracted on the road (Brachot 3a). Elijah the Prophet informed Rabbi Yossi that he should have prayed a shorter prayer on the road while travelling instead of praying for longer in the Jerusalem ruin.

Perhaps, Elijah’s message is that when engaging in prayer, we can be mindful of the metaphorical road towards future recovery rather than focusing on the destruction of the past?

Now, still in the midst of a pandemic, we are in a precarious position and these teachings about the role of prayer while in a crisis really resonate. We need to find the right balance of prayer that doesn’t place others in danger, coupled with action that is focused on the opportunity of rebuilding a new society that is safe, positive and fruitful for everyone.


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