Shemos, 14:10-11: “Pharaoh approached; the Children of Israel raised their eyes and behold – Egypt was journeying after them, and they were very frightened; the Children of Israel cried out to HaShem.
Rashi, 14:10, sv. And they cried out: They grasped the craft of their fathers; With regards to Avraham it says ‘to the place where he stood there’; with regards to Yitzchak it says, ‘to speak in the field’; with regards to Yaakov, it says, ‘and he met in that place’.

As the Jews faced the oncoming Egyptian army, they cried out to God in desperation to help them. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, 1 writes that they learnt to do this from the Patriarch. Rashi continues to outline the occasions when the Patriarchs prayed – the instances he cites are of great significance because they are the sources for the three daily prayers of Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv. Avraham instituted Shacharit with his prayer, Yitzchak established Mincha, and Yaakov instituted Maariv.

This comparison between the prayers of the Patriarchs and the crying out of the Jewish people at the sea is difficult to understand. There are generally two different types of circumstances in which people pray – one is in a time of suffering or great need when we turn to God to save us. The other main times that we pray are the three daily prayers of Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv. We pray at these times even when we are not necessarily in a state of great suffering or need, rather because the Sages obligated us to pray at these times. Moreover, Rabbi Yerucham Levovits points out that the examples that the Midrash gives of the prayers of the Patriarchs were not times of particular pain or suffering.2 Accordingly, how could the Midrash say that the Jewish people’s prayer in this time of total desperation, was based on the daily prayers of the Patriarchs, when they were seemingly, completely different types of prayers?

In truth it seems that the question is based on a faulty understanding of prayer. Rabbi Levovits was writing during times of great suffering for the Jewish people.3 The Jewish people faced tremendous danger from all sides and were denied the most basic rights. He writes: “In despair, I thought to myself, "Why are we not crying out? Is there truly no one to turn to in the entire world?" When I found myself saying this, I stopped and thought, "And before this did we have someone else to beseech? Even when fortune was shining on us and times were good, was there anyone to rely on? In reality, there is no difference between good times or bad times, and all we have is Hashem. 'Out of the straits I cried unto God'.4 There is no one else to turn to, no one else to cry out to."

He came to the realization that there is really no difference between tranquil periods and times of suffering – even when the situation seems secure, it is totally from God’s active involvement in our lives. And even when things are more difficult, God is also in total control. One of our main jobs in all situations is to turn to God in desperation, with a recognition that He is the sole source of our wellbeing.

Rabbi Levovits continues that this was how the Patriarchs prayed in all times. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov lived in relatively peaceful times. Yet their prayers were filled with the tears of one experiencing great suffering. They understood that the external state of affairs is of no significance and that in all times the only One that they could depend upon was the Almighty. Therefore, their prayers were the paradigm of complete devotion and attachment to Hashem.

We can now understand the comparison between the daily prayers of the Patriarchs, and the desperate prayers of the Jewish people at the Sea of Reeds. The Patriarchs prayed every Prayer with the same attitude that the Jews had at the Sea – that their only source of success in life and indeed, of their very survival, was God. Accordingly, they poured out their hearts as if their life depended on it, every single time they prayed.

Obviously, the Patriarchs attained incredible heights in their Prayer, far beyond our grasp. Yet, as ever it is our job to strive to learn from their example and emulate them on our own level. The most basic lesson is to contemplate the fact that we are always in a state of complete dependence on God’s kindness to enable us to survive and prosper. Generally, we are more inclined to pray with added concentration when times are hard. We learn from the Patriarchs that we should remind ourselves that even in tranquil times, it is equally essential that we pray to God with intent.

A second lesson from Rabbi Levovits teaching pertains to our approach to the three daily prayers. It is understandably difficult to maintain intention when praying identical prayers time after time. Yet we know that many of the set prayers were written with Prophecy5 and that they express our needs better than we could ourselves. Of course, we only have a minute grasp of the depth of these prayers but it is incumbent upon us to at least attain a basic understanding of their meaning. One Torah Scholar noted that the more he understands the set prayers, the more he realizes that it includes everything that we could ever need.

We learnt how the Jewish people learnt the art of prayer from the Patriarchs and cried out to God. May we all merit to emulate the Patriarchs and pray with all our hearts to Him.

  1. Mechilta, Tanchuma 9.
  2. Daas Torah, Shemos, pp.129-131.
  3. It seems that he was writing during the latter part of the Nineteenth Century and the early part of the Twentieth Century.
  4. Psalms, 118:5.
  5. This includes the Shemoneh Esrei that was written by the Men of the Great Assembly which included Prophets.