A time for prayer, a time to act

Rabbi Dale Schreiber is a chaplain providing Jewish care  coordination for Pathways Hospice and Palliative Care and has a private practice, Renewal-in-Action, specializing in resiliency, spiritual development and compassion fatigue recovery.


B’shalach is the fourth of 11 chapters in the Book of Exodus. It describes the Israelites ascent out of Egypt and records the dramatic happenings in the aftermath of the death of Egypt’s first born. 

B’shalach begins in chaos at the Red Sea and ends with a victory over Amalek, the enemy who became the archetype of Evil in the Jewish mind. In the intermediate chapters, the Israelites are exposed to challenges and trials out of which a long-lived communal memory was forged.  

The Hebrews grew numerous and were perceived as a threat to national security. As perpetual outsiders, they could neither assimilate into a dominant culture nor remember their own history.  A loss of memory means a loss of identity. Perhaps that is why Judaism places such emphasis on the obligation to remember. The happenings in B’shalach are recorded in the Passover seder when we say, “Once we were slaves and now we are free.”

In the 12th century, Maimonides  used the beginning verse of B’shalach to illustrate his belief that there are no sudden revolutionary changes in the world we inhabit. He understood the process of change as both necessary and time consuming. Slaves do not become free without a protracted learning curve.

The word B’shalach is translated as sent out. It can also mean thrown away or discarded. The portion begins with: Now when Pharaoh sent the people out, God led them the longer, circuitous route to protect them from their fear of war. The story tells us that the long way around avoided any exposure to events that would cause a change of heart in the people. And yet the text records the idea that the Israelites, going up out of Egypt, were armed; a ragtag army of sorts, undisciplined and untested.  


Some commentators were uncomfortable with the interpretation of armed Israelites marching through the wilderness. They found references elsewhere in Torah where the word used for “armed” could mean equipped or loaded-with everything except the survival skills to move forward into an inconceivable future. 

Torah describes the fear and panic that spread through the camp as Pharaoh and his army charged toward them. The Jerusalem Talmud describes four groups that formed at the banks of the sea. Group 1 exclaimed,  “Let us fall into the sea.” A second group argued, “We must return to Egypt.” The third group maintained, “We should engage them in battle.” And the fourth group responded, “Let us pray for their downfall.”

The sages used the biblical text itself to craft a response to these four approaches to impending disaster. To those who chose Option 1, Moses responded, “Stand fast and bear witness.” To those who argued for returning to the status quo of servitude, Moses answered, “You will never see Egypt in the same way again.” To those who would do battle, Moses reminded them, “God will be your champion today. It is not up to you.” And finally, to those who would pray, Moses advised them to be silent.  

Then God admonishes them all: “You are wasting time crying out to me. Move forward!” In other words, there is a time for prayer and a time to act. 

The Israelites moved forward through what Torah describes as towering walls of water. This passage way is described in Midrash as a narrow channel, wide enough for each of the Israelites to walk through single file. They were alone and together. Some may have closed their eyes. Others looked up. All arrived on the other side only to face more challenges and trials on their paths to freedom.  

Rabbi Benay Lapp is a contemporary rabbi who speaks about the Big Questions all cultures ask. Why are we here?  What is our purpose? How should we live our lives in this time of uprootedness, uncertainty and confusion?  

We may each have personal answers to these questions. A collective Jewish response as to why we are here is a communal memory recording not only the suffering of our predecessors, but their resilience. Those Jewish time travelers became what Lapp calls gavirna (learned and developed) svara (moral intuition).   When what you are told is truth conflicts with what you sense is right, resolution comes from the question about your purpose.  

Torah is clear about the obligations of freedom. Our eternal Jewish purpose, if you will, is to serve a Higher Power and greater goodness as champions for justice, fairness, compassion and dignity. We have arrived today armed with a Tradition that reminds us to grow beyond our innate potential.  

When faced with a bewildering and threatening reality, we are to remember the lessons of our past. We have been taught to move forward and to be strengthened by the beautiful torah of American poet C.P. Estes: “We were made for times like these.”   

May the lessons of our past infuse the actions of our present to create wholeness in a broken world.