Beshallach: the Art of our Ancestors

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beshallach

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. . . . .(Shemot/ Exodus 14:10)

Good afternoon!

This week we read the climax of the Exodus story: the Israelites leave Egypt but are pursued by Pharaoh’s army, which drowns in the Sea of Reeds after it has been split to allow Israel safe passage on foot.

As the Egyptian Army approaches, the people see the pursuers, become frightened, and “cry out to God,” as in the verse above. While perusing the commentators, I noticed a comment by Rashi that practically leaped off the page, begging for further exploration. (I’m still amazed I never really noticed this before.) Explaining the phrase “cried out,” Rashi says “they grasped the art of their ancestors” [tafsu omanut avotam] and goes on to reference the idea that Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov each instituted or demonstrated various prayers or aspects of our liturgy.

I understand why Rashi might want  to link the people’s prayer to the prayers of the patriarchs; doing so reinforces the idea that the people were saved at least in part because of the merit of those ancestors and promises made to them. Yet the word omanut, which means art or craft, is a very interesting word to apply to “crying out,” especially since it is related to the word emunah, which means belief, which in turn is related to the common phrase amen, which means something like “I believe that.”

I can also understand calling liturgical prayer an “art,” in the sense that it involves intellect, skill and emotions- to master traditional Hebrew prayers takes some practice but also requires a personal, spiritual commitment, much like art requires both technical skill and emotional expression. Yet the “crying out” at the shore of the sea is precisely not a liturgical, fixed prayer, but a spontaneous expression. So perhaps Rashi is hinting that this, too, is a kind of skill or discipline passed along from generation to generation by our ancestors; even to know when and how to cry out requires spiritual openness and a sense that we are worthy of doing so.

I love the idea that prayer is the “art of our ancestors;” it conveys a sense not of obligation or fixed disciplines- though those too are aspects of Jewish prayer- but instead a sense of discovery, creativity, openness, vulnerability, honesty, and expression of our deepest truths. That kind of prayer can come out of “crying out,” but can also arise from gratitude, wonder, and love. We have been given a precious gift by our those who came before; the challenge is to make their art our own.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- Happy Tu B’Shvat to one and all!

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