Parashat Beshalah: The Forgotten Precondition to Prayer
We read in Parashat Beshalah that when Beneh Yisrael found themselves trapped against the sea by the Egyptian army, G-d spoke to Moshe and said, "Ma Tis’ak Elai" – "Why are you crying out to Me?" (14:15). Rashi explains that Moshe was standing in prayer, and G-d now told him that he no longer needed to pray, as his prayers were answered. God told him that Beneh Yisrael should travel forward into the sea, which would miraculously split to allow them to cross safely.
Like every verse and every word in the Torah, there are multiple layers of interpretation of G-d’s response to Moshe. One interpretation offers us a vital lesson about prayer, and about religious life generally.
Later in Parashat Beshalah, we read of Beneh Yisrael’s complaints to Moshe and Aharon over the lack of food, to which Moshe and Aharon replied, "Ve’nahnu Ma Ki Talinu Alenu" – "What are we, that you complain to us?" (16:8). The Sages of the Midrash understood this as an expression of great humility. Although Moshe and Aharon were among the greatest men who ever lived, they nevertheless saw themselves as "Ma" – lowly and insignificant.
The commentators note that if the word "Ma" can denote humility and selflessness, then we arrive at a new and profound understanding of G-d’s response to Moshe at the shores of the Yam Suf. The phrase "Ma Tis’ak Elai" can be read to mean, "With humility you cry out to Me." We must cry out to G-d with a sense of "Ma," with a recognition of just how lowly we are in comparison to Him, and how unworthy we are of His assistance and grace.
Indeed, the Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles of Cracow, 1525-1572), in his glosses to the Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 98:1), writes that before one begins to pray, he should reflect upon his lowliness. This is a crucial precondition to prayer, but unfortunately, it is something that is often neglected. When we think of ways to improve prayer, we naturally think of the importance of remaining quiet during the service, of proper concentration, and of understanding the words. Of course, these are all crucially important. But we cannot neglect this explicit ruling of the Shulhan Aruch, that we must think about our lowly stature and unworthiness before we stand before G-d to pray.
Why is the feeling of humility so vital to the effectiveness of prayer?
The Kabbalistic word "Sha’areh Orah" teaches that prayers in Eretz Yisrael are more powerful than prayers outside the Land of Israel because they do not have to travel. When we pray in the Diaspora, our prayers need to "journey" all the way to the site of the Temple in Jerusalem, and along the way, they are vulnerable to the negative spiritual forces that seek to interfere with our prayers and prevent them from reaching the Heavenly Throne. When one prays in the Land of Israel, however, the prayers have a far shorter distance to travel, and thus there is far less risk of their failing to reach their destination. There is, however, a way to ensure that prayers anywhere in the world ascend directly to G-d without any threat of interference. The verse says in Yeshayahu (57:15) that G-d resides with "Daka U’shfal Ru’ah" – those who suffer and those who are humble. When a person experiences pain, such as in times of illness or other personal crises, G-d is close to him; likewise, G-d is close to one who is lowly and humble. And thus such people are far more likely to have their prayers accepted. Since G-d is right near them, their prayers do not need to travel, and can reach the Almighty without interference.
This is why an ill patient’s prayers for himself are more effective than other people’s prayers on his behalf, and this is also why humility is such an important prerequisite for prayer. Before we begin praying, we must take a few moments to contemplate our lowliness, our inadequacies, our mistakes and our shortcomings. Once we realize our low stature, G-d will come near and eagerly listen and lovingly accept all our prayers, Amen.