Shortly after our ancestors left Egypt, they found themselves standing on the shore of the Red Sea, caught between the rapidly approaching Egyptian army and the seemingly impassable waters. Moses, understanding our people’s plight, turned to God in prayer. Instead of answering Moses’ prayer, God rebukes him with the question, “Why are you crying out to me?” (Exodus 14:15)
What a strange thing for God to say! Of course God knew why Moses was praying. It was obvious. Our people were trapped and they desperately needed God’s help. So why did God take Moses to task for praying at that moment, when prayers seemed so appropriate?
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, a sage of the second century C.E., suggests in a midrash, an interpretive passage composed by the rabbis of the Talmudic period, that God is not questioning Moses’ need for prayer, but the nature of Moses’ prayer. Rabbi Eliezer says that God, in effect, was saying to Moses, “My children are in trouble – the sea shuts them off on one side, and the enemy pursues them on the other – and yet you stand and make long prayers. Don’t you know that there is a time to make long prayers and a time to make short ones?” (Mekilta on Parashat Beshalach 3)
In other words, Rabbi Eliezer tells us that God is instructing Moses to stop praying so much and to get moving. The ancient rabbi teaches us that the faithful response in time of need is not to turn to God in prayer, but to trust the abiding relationship one has with God and do whatever seems appropriate.
For Moses, confronted by the Red Sea and the Egyptians, the appropriate act was an act of faith. Moses needed to remember all the miracles God performed during the Exodus and trust that the One who had so recently performed such great wonders on behalf of His people would not let them perish on the seashore or drown in the sea. Trusting in God, Moses lifted his staff over the sea. The sea spilt and our people crossed over safely.
Moses apparently enjoyed lengthy prayers, but he also learned to offer prayers that were succinct and to the point. Moses discovered that both long and short prayers have their proper place in our spiritual lives. Long prayers are part of a spiritual practice that helps us gain deep and abiding wisdom and insight. Short prayers, on the other hand, help us draw on our spiritual reserves in times of need and stress. They both have their appropriate places, and Moses’ prayer life reflects the value of both.
In another midrash, Rabbi Eliezer underscores Moses’ insights into prayer. When his students complained that a certain prayer leader drew out worship to an interminable length, Rabbi Eliezer reminded them that no one prays as long as Moses did when he spent forty days and nights in prayerful meditation on Mount Sinai as he was receiving the Torah (Deuteronomy 9:18). On the other hand, when his students complained that another prayer leader made the worship too brief, Rabbi Eliezer reminded them that Moses is also the author of the shortest prayer in the Bible. Found in this week’s portion, Behaaloteha, this prayer was uttered a couple of years after the Red Sea crossing, for his sister Miriam’s recovery from a disfiguring skin disease. It contains five short words: “Dear God, please heal her!” (Numbers 12:13) (Sifre Numbers Behaaloteha 195).
For most of us today, the lengthy prayers that foster spiritual growth take place in the synagogue, particularly on Shabbat and holidays, when we gather for a couple of hours to worship God and hear the words of the Torah. The spiritual growth we seek is a long and slow process and we may not be able to sense the gradual unfolding of our spirit each time we attend and participate in services. So we, like Rabbi Eliezer’s students, need to remember that even Moses had to struggle in prayer for spiritual growth.
Yet there are also times when we feel a spontaneous need to pray. These are often times of stress and challenge, when we seemed trapped by the circumstances of life. These, however, as Moses discovered on the shore of Red Sea, are not occasions for lengthy prayers. At these moments, we do not have the luxury of spending forty days and nights on the mountain top in a spiritual pilgrimage. These are the occasions in which our prayers help us draw upon the spiritual strengths already embedded deeply in our hearts.
When faced with overwhelming personal challenges, we pray for what we need, as Moses did when confronted by his sister’s disease. We pray for courage and strength, insight and hope, and the love and support of family and friends. We pray for the ability to draw upon the life-enhancing, life-affirming gifts we have already received so that we can make the decisions we need to make.
We know that, when peace returns to our lives, we will have the opportunity to reflect on our present challenges in our continuing spiritual journeys. We will once again have time for lengthy prayers. But in times of stress, the short prayer is just what we need to help us do what we must.