Pesach and the Potency of Prayer

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09 Sep 2016

Every event in history, every story in life has a main plot line set in a supporting background that lends it both credibility and richness. The Passover chronicle is no exception. While the main theme of Pesach is the story of our redemption and of our unflagging faith in Hashem both before the redemption and as a reference point throughout our history after our redemption, the sub theme of prayer, of speech and communicating with Hashem provides a strong background for the major theme. As proof, Ramban writes that we were redeemed only through the power of our prayer, for we had already fallen into a state of unworthiness.

Let us begin tracing the thread of prayer through the Pesach narrative and understanding the special voice of the Jew for, as Rabbi Broide writes in Sam Derech, since Yitzchak blessed Yaakov by recognizing his special voice (hakol kol Yaakov), the cries of Bnei Yisrael no longer need to be specific, for Hashem is always there, and, like a mother who gives her attention and fulfills the wordless needs of her crying child, so does Hashem care for us as well. Therefore, when Moshe asks Hashem by what Name he should identify God to Bnei Yisroel when they will ask, Hashem’s response is, “I will be (with you) as I have been (with you).” In other words, let them call out to me and I will answer, and they will know Who I am.

One of the questions raised by the Pesach events goes back to the prophecy of these events in the Covenant Between the Halves when Hashem tells Avraham Avinu that his progeny will be enslaved for four hundred years. However, the entire time in Egypt was only two hundred ten years, and that includes the time pre enslavement, when Joseph’s family was revered in Egypt. The most often quoted reconciliation of this mathematical dilemma is to say that we begin counting the years of enslavement from the birth of Yitzchak who was the progeny through which the prophecy would be realized and whose birth was alluded to as the seed promised to Avraham at the beginning of this prophecy.

Nevertheless, how was this calculation determined? Rabbi Ber in Maaseh Rokem posits that in fact the four hundred years was meant to be nebulous. Its end would be determined by when Bnei Yisrael would call out to Hashem, and then four hundred years would be counted backwards. So it was that the beginning of the four hundred years coincided with the birth of Yitzchak. Had Bnei Yisrael cried out sooner, the beginning of the enslavement could have been calculated back to the time of the original prophecy.

And yet, once Bnei Yisrael cry out, the situation in Egypt gets even worse, the suffering intensifies. Why? Because, Rav Schwadron explains, the suffering was preordained. If the time is now telescoped into two hundred ten years, the suffering must be concentrated to fill that timeframe. So too, when our own challenges seem to become unbearable, perhaps it is because Hashem is now hastening our deliverance.

Rabbi Shimshon Pincus notes in Tiferes Shimshon that most of the terms used to describe the prayer of Bnei Yisrael were wordless cries or groans that Hashem listened to, for Hashem doesn’t need to hear words to understand the pain in one’s heart, and when one cries out when he feels lost, his cry is non-specific to whoever can help him. Ultimately, this is none other than HaKadosh Baruch Hu. After all, when we are in a tight place and in pain, Hashem is there with us, in our very hearts, feeling our pain, as the verse states, “Imo Anochi betzarah – I am together with him in his troubles.” So when Bnei Yisroel cried out from the depths of their hearts, Hashem understood and knew what had to be done.

The situation, though, begs the question: If the servitude was so painful, why didn’t Bnei Yisroel cry out sooner, or, alternatively, what spurred Bnei Yisroel into crying out now? One response is that of Rav Tzadok HaKohen who tells us that when Hashem wants to save us, he inspires us to pray and cry out to Him. Through our search for intimacy with HaKadosh Baruch Hu that prayer implies, we will merit salvation.

We can approach the question and timing of our prayers in Egypt from an entirely different perspective. The Maor Va’Shemesh, the mystical Rabbi Kalonymus Epstein, writes that in Egypt not only were our bodies physically enslaved, but our power of speech was also in exile, signified by the very name of the tyrant of Pesach, PaRoh, an anagram for Peh Ra, an evil mouth, a tyrant who denies everyone free speech, and certainly the ability to pray. Moshe understood Pharaoh well, for he asks Hashem how he can approach Pharaoh when Moshe himself has difficulty speaking. Therefore, as Rabbi Tatz notes in World Mask, Hashem assures Moshe that He will be with him, and Moshe’s speech will be a reflection of God’s voice coming face to face with Pharaoh, while Pharaoh himself will turn his back (neck) on the words of God, as signified by another anagram of the namePaROh = OReF(P), or the back of the neck.

Maor Vashemesh continues to explain the centrality of speech and prayer to the Seder. Of primary importance is the name by which we designate the holiday, Pesach, a contraction of Peh Sach, the mouth speaks, for not only were we freed from our bondage, but the power of speech was unshackled as well. Further, the entire ritual of the Seder is conducted through speech, through questions and answers, and he who increases telling the story of our exodus from Egypt is praiseworthy. In fact, the overriding charge of the Seder, as specified in the Torah, is to tell the story with its ramifications to our children.

The events immediately following the exodus further point to the importance of speech and prayer in the narrative. After Bnei Yisroel leave Egypt. Hashem has them turn around and backtrack to Pi Hachirot which our Sages say is non other than PiThom, one of the storage cities that Bnei Yisroel had built. But now there is a difference, for Bnei Yisroel have gone through the process of forced silence, the closed mouth, pi thom, and have emerged into pi cherut, a free mouth, free to connect to Hashem through speech and prayer. This, says  the Chochmat Hamaspun was the entire purpose of leading them this way and having the Egyptians chase them, for Hakodosh Boruch Hu wanted to hear the sweet voice of His children call out to Him, the voice He hadn’t heard in so long. Once we called out, the connections were made for the miracle of the splitting of the sea to occur. Indeed, the purpose of all the challenges and troubles Hashem puts before us, writes Rabbi Nissel inRigshei Lev, are to offer us an opportunity to call out to Hashem and develop a relationship with Him.

If we backtrack for a moment, we are still left with the question of the timing of Bnei Yisroel’s cry to Hashem that activated the redemption process. The verse tells us that the king of Egypt died at which point Bnei Yisroel groaned because of the work, and they cried out. Why did they cry out now and not earlier? According to Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv Hatorah, the Jews were prohibited from crying or praying, but now, with the general mourning of the land for the death of the leader, Bnei Yisroel joined in the general grief. However, their tears were not about the death of Pharaoh, but rather for their own circumstances. (What will it take for Jews to be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount?) As a variation, a similar ploy was used by victims of the Holocaust in the face of the Nazi oppressors,  as noted in the book Touched. By a Story. The pious Jews appeared to be bemoaning their fate by intoning, “Aye, aye, aye,” when in fact they were mouthing a mnemonic for remembering the six mandated daily remembrances in defiance of their oppressors. Further, getting back to Egypt, says Maayan Hamoed, when no relief came with the ascension of the new king, Bnei Yisroel finally cried out to Hashem.

How did the enslavement begin? Rabbi Twerski notes that the servitude began with false overtures of friendship; voyoreu othanu haMitzrim, has the double meaning of the Egyptians being evil to us and its exact opposite, the Egyptians were friendly to us. This pseudo friendship created an emotional connection to the Egyptians that kept Bnei Yisroel from crying out writes Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter in Drash Dovid. Further, adds Rabbi Avraham Schorr in Halekach Vehalebuv, Bnei Yisroel suffered from a mindset that glorified Egyptian culture, making it seem like a privilege to be working for them. Only after the death of the king and the ascension of a new monarch did Bnei Yisroel realize they had been duped. So when Hashem takes us out of the oppressions of Egypt, He is taking us out of the psychological oppression of Egyptian culture as well as from the physical oppression of servitude. In fact, continues Rabbi Schorr, the charge to continuously see ourselves as if we personally left Mitzrayim refers to our tendency to be seduced by the mindset of the prevailing culture, so that we are caught up in its materialism or its technology at the expense of our spiritual growth. If we ask for Hashem’s help, we too can free ourselves from the shackles that bind us to these oppressors that can rob us of our time and our dignity as free and spiritual human beings.

What was the overriding problem in Egypt? After all, it was described as a second Eden, lush and beautiful and requiring minimal cultivation. And in fact, that was the problem, writes Rabbi Baum in Lilah Kayom Yair. Because the land was so fertile and was watered regularly by the overflowing Nile, the people relied only upon themselves and nature, never needing to form a connection to a higher Power. This was what Hashem wanted to negate, for He desires a connection with His creations.

The Matnas Chaim notes that the theme of prayer is so integral to the story of our redemption that it is even woven into the Egyptian subplot, for the plagues are removed by dint of Moshe’s praying for their removal. The entire purpose of the redemption, as testified to when we sing Dayeinu was to enable us to build the Beit Hamikdosh, a place where we could approach Hashem in prayer. Even the structure of the Seder hints at prayer, for there are eighteen blessings (nineteen if you count netilat yadayim separately) that parallel the eighteen blessings of the Amidah prayer. Therefore, speaking extraneous words irrelevant to the Seder discussion is prohibited, for this is a night of deep prayer when our entire nation prayed for their redemption as destruction and death swirled around them.   The Rabbeinu Yonah notes that the Jews in Efypt spent the entire night in prayer, not relying on their own merits to protect them from the destruction around them.  We therefore see that this is indeed a central motif for us as we relive the events of this auspicious night.

Rabbi Meisels writes in Sichot Ba’avodat Hashem, this night is dedicated to receiving our prayers, and Rabbi Meisels points out specific areas in the Seder service which seem to be very receptive to individual prayers. Not only is the holiday called Peh sach, the mouth speaks, but matzah, the necessary “bread” of the Seder is called lechem oni, the bread with which Hashem answers (our prayers), a variant translation of oni.

So where are some of the most suitable places in the Seder to insert our prayers? The Seder itself indicates, before the Mah Nishtanah, “Here the son asks,” and here we can ask our Father in heaven for what we need. Certainly, when we eat the matzoh, we can ask that Hashem answer our prayers, and when we mention the child who cannot ask, we ask Hashem to open our own mouths to ask for spiritual growth.

Perhaps most of all, we ask Hashem, “Why is this night, this exile, different from all other nights?” Please Hashem, let Your anger pour forth on our enemies, let the day come soon when we will greet Eliyahu HaNavi, the harbinger of our redemption, so that we can conduct our Seder next year in the rebuilt Yerushalayim – l’shanah haba’ah B’Yerushalayim habenuyah.