The highlight of the portion of Beshallach is the climax of the Exodus story, the crossing of the Red Sea. Immediately after the Israelites cross the sea, Moses leads them in song, a model of communal singing that we still practice today in the recitation of the Hallel psalms on holidays.

Just before they cross the sea, the Israelites are trapped between the Pharaoh’s army and the shore. At that moment, the Torah recounts that God speaks to Moses and says, “Why do you cry unto me?” and instructs Moses to lead the people through the soon-to-be-parted water. The verse is a bit strange, as while the people complain to Moses that “there were not enough graves in Egypt, so you led us to die here” (the first expression of Jewish guilt-tripping), Moses in fact tells them to watch what God is about to do. Why, then, does God say to Moses, “Why do you cry unto me?” As they Rabbis play with this verse in the midrash, they dwell on the idea that God hears prayer even before it is uttered. Moses didn’t even need to cry to God for God to anticipate that this is what would happen.

This leads the Midrash to explore the idea of prayer. In the process, the Rabbis several amazing comments:

It is written, “O Thou that hearest prayer, unto Thee doth all flesh come (Psalms 65:3).” What is the meaning of: ’O Thou that hearest prayer’?2 R. Phinehas in the name of R. Meir and R. Jeremiah in the name of R. Hiyya b. Abba said: When Israel pray, you do not find them all praying at the same time, but each assembly prays separately, first one and then another. When they have all finished, the angel appointed over prayers collects all the prayers that have been offered in all the Synagogues, weaves them into garlands and places them upon the head of God…

Another explanation of ’O Thou that hearest prayer’. You will find that a mortal man cannot grasp the conversation of two people speaking at the same time, but with God it is not so. All pray before Him, and He understands and receives all their prayers.

Another explanation of ’O Thou that hearest prayer’. R. Judah b. Shalom said in the name of R. Eleazar: If a poor man says anything, one pays little regard; but if a rich man speaks, immediately he is heard and listened to. Before God, however, all are equal, women, slaves, poor and rich. A proof? Because of Moses, the greatest of all prophets, the same is said as of a poor man. Of Moses it is written, A Prayer of Moses the man of God (Psalms 90:1), and of a poor man it says, A Prayer of the afflicted,4 when he fainteth, and poureth out his complaint before the Lord (Psalms 102:1). In both cases the word ’prayer’ is used to teach you that before God all are equal in prayer. (Shemot Rabbah 21:4)

The general theme of these midrashim is that the act of communal prayer is a miraculous one, in which each individual melds into community, and each community melds into the totality of Israel, all the while preserving the uniqueness of the individual and the community. Each prayer becomes a jewel in the crown that the angel places upon God. This is a testament both to God’s singularity and to the singularity of the prayer experience.

The midrash here is setting up one of two bookends. The other will come next week in Parshat Yitro during the revelation at Sinai. In that case, the midrash tells us that each individual heard God’s voice in the voice that was appropriate to him or her, essentially in his or her own voice. The miraculousness there is that everyone experienced the same thing while experiencing something unique.

Prayer and revelation then become two modes of this same radical experience, in which the uniqueness of our individual soul, language and life is bound up, carried, elaborated, and enriched by the uniqueness and the totality of the our fellow-travelers. Prayer opens us to the possibility of revelation, revelation opens us to the possibility of prayer. Tefillah and Torah are two expressions of the same mystery.

Shabbat shalom.

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