Click  here
for the Torah For The Times archives


Torah Reading: Parshat Beshalach Exodus 13:17-17:16
HaftoraJudges 4:4-5:31
Shabbat Candle Lighting: 4:48 PM
Shabbat Ends: 5:50 PM


Be Silent!
Pharaoh has told the children of Israel to leave. The fledgling Jewish nation leaves Egypt seeking freedom, but alas, Pharaoh has a change of heart and gathers his people to pursue his freed slaves.
Finding themselves sandwiched between the Red Sea and the pursuing Egyptian forces, the Jewish people were terrified and cried out to G‑d.
However, G‑d is unhappy with their prayers. He instructs Moses to give the following message to the children of Israel: “G‑d will wage war for you and you shall be silent.”
The Aramaic Midrashic-translation, known as Targum Yonoson, renders this verse as: “Be silent and give glory and praise and exalt your G‑d.”
Another Midrashic work, the Mechilta, translates it differently: “You shall be silent and cease praying.”
These two Midrashic sources appear to be giving contradictory translations of the very same passage. Targum Yonoson implies that the children of Israel were not asked to stop praying. Rather, they were told to sing G‑d’s praises. Silence, in this context, presumably means not to engage in speech other than to sing G‑d’s praises. Yet, the Mechilta translates this verse literally, that they were to be silent and not even pray.
How are we to reconcile these two apparently contradictory Midrashic sources?
We can reconcile them by first analyzing Targum Yonoson’s comment, which needs clarification.
What’s Wrong with Prayer?
If we examine the Biblical text, we discover that the people were actually praying to G‑d, as it says, “And the children of Israel cried out to G‑d.” Rashi comments they adopted the “profession” of their fathers, the Patriarchs, who prayed to G‑d.
Rashi therefore implies that the people were engaged in a positive exercise of prayer. Why then did G‑d tell them to sing His praises? Weren’t they doing precisely that?
The approach of the Mechilta, that they should cease praying, is less problematic. Although they were engaged in a positive exercise of prayer, G‑d told them that this was not the time and place for prayer.
The Rebbe explained, based on the Midrash, that their prime mission was to continue their journey toward Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Indeed, the entire Egyptian Bondage and subsequent Exodus was divinely designed to prepare the children of Israel for receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Hence, G‑d told them that although prayer is usually a most felicitous and desirable activity, this was neither the time nor place for it; it was time to focus on their overarching mission to march forward towards Mount Sinai. Anything that diverted them in another direction, literally or figuratively, was contrary to the purpose of their liberation.
However, Targum Yonoson’s approach, that they were to sing G‑d’s praises, begs us for an explanation. Weren’t they already praying?
Also, the Torah states that G‑d told the children of Israel to be silent. Nowhere does the Torah say that they should sing His praises. How then does Targum Yonoson justify explaining an explicit statement of G‑d, for them to be silent, by saying that they should sing praises?
One can offer a simple answer based on the actions of the children of Israel. True, they were crying out to G‑d in prayer but they also complained to Moses when they said: “Are there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the desert. What is this that you did to us to take us out of Egypt?”
Perhaps G‑d’s statement to Moses, that they should be silent and sing praises, was intended not for those praying but those who were complaining.
Praise But Do Not Petition
Upon deeper reflection, it seems that Targum Yonoson’s explanation that they should sing praises was indeed intended for those who prayed to G‑d. As good as their prayers were, G‑d wanted them to focus on a higher form of prayer.
Classical Torah sources teach us that there is a twin dynamic to prayer, consisting of two components. The first is pleading with G‑d to provide us with our needs with the intention that He will satisfy them for us.  This demonstrates our dependence on G‑d for our requirements. The 13 middle blessings of the Amidah, which we recite thrice daily, consist of requests for all of our material and spiritual needs.
The second component of prayer is pure praise of G‑d for His kindnesses, compassion and, particularly, His miracles. The praises such as this form the first three and final three blessing of the Amidah.  
One of the differences between the aspects of request and praise is that the former is usually done with tears, while the latter is with joy.
When we plead to G‑d for our needs, we are asking for G‑d to change the past. Our prayer implies that we are lacking and hurting, and we implore G‑d to change our situation. Focusing on our pain and on our past, even as we pray and trust that G‑d will grant us our requests, inevitably takes its toll on us because we are dwelling in the past and obsessing on our pain and negative conditions.
When we sing praises to G‑d, however, we revel in His goodness and the miracles we have experienced.  
This explains Targum Yonoson’s comment that the children of Israel were told to be silent and sing praises. G‑d wanted them to know that this was not the time to petition Him with requests but, instead, to sing His praises. One only makes requests before the desired result materializes. But when the children of Israel saw the miracles G‑d had performed for them in the past, they should not have needed to implore G‑d for the future. So although the miracle of the splitting of the Sea had not yet happened; they should have raised their voices in jubilant singing, as though the miracle had already come to pass.
This was not a time to cry and plead for a miracle; their faith in G‑d should have lead them to believe the miracle would surely come about.  Consider the fortunate person who knows that he or she has won the lottery but who has yet to collect the prize.  It stands to reason that he or she will rejoice even before the check is deposited into their account.
The Definition of Silence
We can now also understand how Targum Yonoson could reconcile his comment, that the children of Israel were expected to sing, with the explicit statement in the Torah that they were told to remain silent.
Silence here implies that there is no need to beg for and thereby generate the desired results. In the words of the Zohar, “do not try to arouse anything,” for it has already been taken care of by G‑d. They were essentially being told “if you think that your actions, even the act of prayer, are going to make the miracle happen, you are mistaken. G‑d is doing it all by Himself.”  However, this did not preclude reacting to G‑d’s initiative.
Using the form of prayer designed to initiate and elicit G‑d’s response was, in this situation, out of order. This was not the time for such initiatives. He did not intend the children of Israel to be active on their own behalf. However, the form of prayer which involves reacting to G‑d’s initiative, in other words praising Him, was entirely proper.
The meaning of His command for silence in this situation was not an instruction to do nothing. Rather, it was meant for them to understand that they were not expected to initiate the miraculous parting of waters with their prayers. The children of Israel were to be passively receptive to the miracle and then react to it with songs of praise.
Contradiction Resolved
Let us turn our attention to the true meaning of what the Mechilta says.  The children of Israel were told that they should be silent and cease praying. Based on the distinction between supplicatory prayer and songs of praise, we can easily reconcile this apparent contradiction. While they were not to pray as a means of petitioning G‑d to make the miracle happen, this did not preclude reacting and responding to G‑d’s initiative with praises.
The Focus Today: Songs of Praise
The lesson here is that while we must still cry out to G‑d, Ad Masai, how much longer? our primary expression of prayer should be of praise for the miracles we have already experienced; they are a portent of the miracles we will soon experience.
There is no question that, in the last few decades since the Rebbe declared the year 5750 and 5751, as the years of miracles and wonders, respectively, we have witnessed all sorts of miracles, from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the “small” miracles we have experienced in our individual lives.  We must react to them all by showing our gratitude to G‑d and by publicizing His wonderous acts. In addition, we must also express our anticipatory gratitude for the miracles to come, as if they had already happened.