Date: January 25th 2018




Parsht Beshalach describes the events that transpired shortly after Egypt was devastated by the plague of the firstborn. Pharaoh freed his Jewish slaves, and they left.

Pharaoh soon regretted his decision, and he pursued them with an army, reaching them as they were encamped by the Red Sea. The situation facing the Jews was desperate; they were trapped between Pharaoh’s army on one side and the sea on the other. The then Jews cried out in prayer. Rashi (Parshat Beshalach 14, 10) explains that they adopted the practice of their three great forefathers who prayed to Hashem (Hashem) in times of travail.

Amazingly, immediately following this prayer, the Jews complained to Moshe (Moses) saying: “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” How could they first pray to Hashem that He save their lives and at the next moment accuse Hashem’s Emissary Moshe of leading them from Egypt so that they would die? Aren’t these two responses incompatible and contradictory? Could they both sincerely pray to Hashem and also level this terrible accusation at Moshe who acted on His behalf?

The Commentary of Rabbi Yitzchak Abohab explains that Rashi’s words, “They seized upon the trait of their forefathers” has a negative connotation. In truth, their prayers were lacking. The three Forefathers sincerely prayed when facing danger. Hence, the Jews who left Egypt were likely conditioned from earliest childhood that prayer is the natural and automatic reaction to difficult and dangerous situations. But since this response was already so ingrained in them, their prayer was, therefore, a mitzvat anashim melomda – a mitzvah done unthinkingly and by rote, lacking true purity and focus.

It is therefore understandable how they could have first prayed to The Almighty and then, shortly thereafter, complained bitterly about what His Emissary Moshe did. They adhered to the tradition of prayer of their forefathers, but automatically and out of habit, without really focusing on what they were actually saying.

That people perform mitzvot unthinkingly in everyday scenarios is readily understandable. For example, a man could mechanically don tefillin and pray with outward signs of fervor for years on end without hardly ever thinking about what he is doing and saying. What would happen though if that same person were suddenly be confronted by grave danger and he then proceeded to pray for his own life? Seemingly, at that moment, those prayers would not be automatic, but instead, altogether heartfelt. The secular wisdom on such moments is that “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” When facing the possibility of imminent death, most people turn to the Almighty with absolute sincerity and literally beg Him for their lives.

Similarly, those Jews were facing a situation from which there appeared to be no possible escape. Their only recourse was to pray to Hashem, and that is what they did. Yet, these entreaties were deficient. Why? because their past everyday prayers tended to be recited by rote. That pattern became so deeply ingrained that even prayers to save their own lives from imminent death could only be recited by rote.

This same challenge presents itself when it comes to the recitation of the daily tefilot (prayers) that people recite. Upon becoming accustomed to reciting them without focusing on the meaning of the words, changing that pattern – though doable – will be a formidable undertaking. Even the capacity to focus on a single urgent prayer (i.e., begging Hashem to spare the life of a loved one who is near death) will be limited by the deficient “prayer style” acquired over the years when reciting the daily prayers.

Presumably, the same psychodynamic that makes it most difficult to dislodge a pattern of praying to Hashem by rote applies to many, if not most, of the Torah’s other mitzvot. For example, eating a fine meal is often a mitzvah, i.e., at the meals on Shabbat, Yom Tov, Purim, Erev Yom Kippur, and at a Brit. One who habitually mainly thinks about enjoying the tasty food at such meals will have a most difficult time doing a self-training to focus as well on the spiritual aspects of melding animalistic eating with the Torah’s high spirituality.

Presumably, the psychodynamic of acting by rote can also rob many daily human interactions of their integrity and meaning. In the case of an individual of sterling character who loves people, even constantly utilized pleasantries such as, “How are you?” can convey genuine heartfelt concern every time they are uttered. However, when those same words as are spoken by rote, they can be repeated with hardly ever giving a thought to what is being continually said to many different people and for years on end. Saying things to others like “How are you?” or “Have a good day” by rote and saying those same words with heartfelt emotion and kindness are two entirely different events. They also seemingly impact the person being spoken to very differently.

It is likely that to overcome the power of habituated behavior, people must constantly refresh and rededicate their attitude to the observance of Torah. Otherwise, enthusiasm and focus can wane, and performance of even the most important of mitzvot can become mostly automatic and unthinking.


The idea of this Dvar highlights a very challenging paradox. Sincere Torah observant Jews consider it imperative to raise children in an environment where Torah values are paramount. Such parents also seek to inculcate their children with the practices of Torah Judaism from the earliest moment possible.

In fact, the halachah (Torah law) stipulates that when children begin to speak, they should be taught to say “Shema Yisroel…” and the Hebrew words for, “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob” (Yoreh Deah 245, 5). Such parents also attempt to teach very young children to recite blessings over food before it is eaten. Thus, from early life and onward, many Jewish children are enveloped by a Torah environment and by training to observe Torah.

However, this same “early intervention” on behalf of Yiddishkeit can beget a serious problem. Children raised in this milieu know no other way and will observe the Torah almost automatically as they mature. And that by rote pattern can continue for an entire lifetime. Being at least aware of this potential hazard should inspire one to try to counteract this tendency.

In this respect, a baal teshuva can have a great advantage in serving Hashem over an FFB ( frum from birth - a Jew who was always observant). Those who in later life made the often wrenching choice to walk away from their former lives and embrace Torah Judaism with its many practices and restrictions often feel a perpetual newness about Torah that FFBs find hard to rival.

This calls to mind the phrase that was popular in the great yeshivot of pre-WW II Eastern Europe, “Haolam hazeh gesher tzar meod (this world is a very narrow bridge).” One who traverses a very narrow bridge is in constant peril of falling, either to one side or the other. In the context of this discussion, if one does not inculcate children with Yiddishkeit from early on, they are not being raised with the requisite intense focus on Torah thinking and observance necessary for later life. Yet, this same exemplary upbringing enhances the peril that for the rest of their lives, those children will perform mitzvot by rote. Conscientious parents must try to prevent their children from succumbing to this automatic peril.

There is no quick and easy solution to this dilemma. It is a circumstance of life – both in the case of child rearing and in numerous other situations people face every daay. One must always be wary of erring to either one alternative or the other - i.e. “falling off the bridge.”

Author's Note: Just as I was about to click "send" for this week's Dvar, I was interrupted about something by the Mother of a 4 1/2-year-old boy who attends an Orthodox Jewish Nursery school. A part of what she related was simply delightful and also illustrative on the subject of how young Jewish children should develop. I
couldn't resist including the vignette as a closer.
During this past week, many of the New York yeshivot were closed for mid-winter vacation, and many families celebrated the break by traveling to warmer climates. This woman's family went to Florida and returned late last night. This morning the child said to his Mother: "Right? Hashem made such a big miracle!" Somewhat perplexed, she replied: "What do you mean? What, are you talking about?" He said: "Last night I went to sleep in the big airplane, and this morning I got up in my bed."

This is an edited version of the JHI Dvar that was previously emailed on Thursday, January 24th, 2013.

You are subscribed to Jewish Heritage Initiative using

You may automatically unsubscribe from this list or change your subscription
by visiting

For more information, visit or send mail to

Mailing List Powered by Dada Mail

<< Previous: JHI Dvar Torah on Parshat Bo

| Archive Index |

Next: JHI- Dvar Torah on Parshat Yitro >>

(archive rss , atom )

this list's archives:

An occasional mailing from the Jewish Heritage Initiative on relevant Torah topics.
Visit us online at

Subscribe/Unsubscribe on Jewish Heritage Initiative

* Required

Powered by Dada Mail 3.0.3 Stable
Copyright © 1999-2008, Simoni Creative.