As Bnei Yisrael flees from Egypt, they look back and see the Egyptian army overtaking them near the Yam Suf. Overwhelmed with trepidation, Bnei Yisrael suddenly loses its trust in Hashem, proclaiming that it would be better to remain in Egypt than die in the wilderness. Moshe responds to the nation by exclaiming that Hashem will destroy the Egyptian army and save Bnei Yisrael. Surprisingly, after Moshe convinces the nation that Hashem will be their savior, Hashem asks Moshe why he prays to Him; however, the text does not state that Moshe prays to Hashem, and if Moshe does indeed pray, one question must be asked: is it appropriate to pray in times of duress?
Rashi (Shemot 14:15) quotes the Midrash, which states that Moshe does in fact pray to Hashem while Bnei Yisrael are in a perilous situation at the Yam Suf. The Midrash adds that while Moshe does pray, Hashem’s response—why are you praying?—implies that the stressful moments at the Yam Suf are not the proper time for prayer. It is evident from the Midrash that Moshe’s prayer is deemed inappropriate because an army is chasing Bnei Yisrael to capture and kill them.
If so, when is the right time to pray? In a time of duress, the Midrash and Rashi appear to argue that prayer is not warranted; rather, during times of stress, actions are better than prayers. Yet Ramban famously states just the opposite: the only time one is Biblically mandated to pray is during a time of great need, and Egypt’s chase of Bnei Yisrael is would certainly qualify.
Perhaps we can reunderstand God’s response and its subsequent interpretation. God does not mean to say that prayer should not play a crucial role, but that in such a scenario action takes precedence. Not until practical steps towards solving the nation’s predicament have been put into place should Moshe begin to pray.
Indeed, we find this model earlier introduced by another great leader, Yaakov Avinu. Upon hearing that Eisav was coming toward him, presumably with a vengeance for stealing the Bechor, Yaakov develops a two-step method to save him and his family from harm. First, he tries to prevent a disasterous sitation by splitting his family into two camps and by appeasing his brother with handsome gifts. Only following that, Yaakov prays for God’s saving, “Hatzileini Na MiYad Achi, MiYad Eisav” “Save me please from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (Shemot 32:12). Action, then prayer.
Just as all of Bnei Yisrael had to act by entering the sea to be saved, in our times, all Jews must take part in the restoration and rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash. It is not enough to sit back and wait for the promise of the Beit HaMikdash to become reality. We must actively do our part and then pray for Hashem to finish the task. In order to be effective, we need both our prayers and our actions.