Monday, February 02, 2015

tefilah is not something supernatural

The Torah tells us that during the battle against Amalek when Moshe raised his hands, Bnei Yisrael rallied against the enemy; when he lowered his hands, the offensive lagged.  The famous Mishna in Rosh haShana asks, “Could Moshe’s hands cause the battle to turn one way or the other?”  The Mishna answers that Moshe’s hands by themselves were powerless.  However, when Moshe raised his hands, the people directed their attention to Heaven and davened, and that’s what caused them to succeed.  When his hands were lowered and the people directed their attention elsewhere, they faltered.

Why do Chazal ask this question only about this parsha?  We read earlier in Beshalacha that Moshe stretched his hand over the Yam to cause it to split, yet we don’t find a Mishna that asks, “Could Moshe’s hands have caused the Yam to split?”  Why not?
There is a fundamental difference between the destruction of Mitzrayim and the battle against Amalek.  The plagues and the splitting of Yam Suf that destroyed Egypt were overt, supernatural miracles that proved that G-d could bend the rules of nature for the sake of Klal Yisrael.  The battle against Amalek proved that G-d was with Bnei Yisrael even when they fought without bending the rules.  Moshe had to choose soldiers, he had to select a general (Yehoshua), Bnei Yisrael had to use arms and go out to fight – this was war being fought as any other people wage war. 

In the parsha immediately preceding the war against Amalek, Bnei Yisrael complained that they did not know, “Ha’yesh Hashem b’kirbeinu…”  They knew that G-d was “out there,” so to speak, in the heavens, ready to perform miracles when needed, but what Bnei Yisrael was missing was the sense that G-d was involved in the day to day of their lives, among them and working behind the scenes to protect and help them.  The war against Amalek was an answer to this complaint.
Obviously the hands of Moshe have no power to bring about the supernatural.  But, writes the Netzi”v, the war against Amalek was not a war waged through supernatural means – it was a war conducted b’derech ha’teva.  Therefore, it is specifically in this context that Chazal ask what role Moshe’s hands played in winning or losing the battle.  Why would b’derech ha’teva the raising of Moshe’s hands or the lowering of his hands have made any difference?

The answer, Chazal teach us, is that Moshe’s hands directed the tefilos of Am Yisrael.  Tefilah is not a supernatural, miraculous means of getting help.  Tefillah is part and parcel of how the derech ha’teva works.  As Rashi writes in Parshas Braishis, the rains did not fall until Adam was there to daven for them.  Rain is a natural phenomenon, but nature following its course also requires our tefilos.


  1. Berel: Oy, look at this terrible government decree against the Jews.
    Shmiel: We need a nais to save us.
    Berel: Ain somchin al haNes. We have to say Tehillim.

    Since b'chol dor vador omdim aleinu..., we also need tefillos b'chol dor vador.
    At least in this dor, we see that we are being frontally and blatantly confronted by Amalek.

  2. I am not 100% happy with the sentence, "Tefilah is not a supernatural, miraculous means of getting help. Tefillah is part and parcel of how the derech ha’teva works."

    Tefillah isn't a natural means of getting help either. Tefillah is about turning to One's Parent. In particular, you are discussing doing so in times of need. But turning to HQBH is an end in itself; and we need to train ourselves out of thinking of tefillah as a means.

    1. Tefilla is Avoda [sheb'lev]. The famous midrash about the RBSh"O terrifying Bnei Yisroel at the Yam Suf [and making most of the Imahos akaros] so that "he could hear their voices" implies that sometimes the need is created to engender the tefilla.

      OTOH, Reb Moshe in the Igros says that even a goy who has problems and needs, but does not consequently doven, is oiver on avodah zarah.

      Your comment [a true avodah she'b'lev] recalls a comment made by Rav Ya'akov Weinberg zt"l that he was uncomfortable with the approach of the Nefesh HaChayim that seemed to reduce our relationship to Hashem to an impersonal psychological experiment: press the proper lever, get the corresponding reward [or the opposite].

    2. >>>Tefillah is about turning to One's Parent. In particular, you are discussing doing so in times of need. But turning to HQBH is an end in itself

      The shitas haRamban is that tefilah d'oraysa is only b'eis tzarah, so at least on a d'oraysa level the only type of prayer that there is to speak of is prayer as a means of eliciting Divine deliverance. The Rambam holds that tefilah is a mitzvah at all times. However, RYBS explained that the Rambam does not disagree with the Ramban's fundamental premis. What Rambam holds is that man is always in a state of existential need, and therefore always has a need for prayer.

    3. As I said, turning to one's Parent in a time of need. It's a natural child-Parent interaction to talk things out just to not feel alone. Nothing to do with eliciting deliverance.

      Since you invoked RYBS, I took a skim of Worship of the Heart. On (the notes that went into) pg 35, he makes my point outright: "The basic function of prayer is not its practical consequences but the metaphysical formation of a fellowship consisting of God and man."

    4. Do you only talk to your parent when you need something?
      Do you need a matir to talk to a parent?

    5. And just for the record, my mother is not allowed to respond to my previous comment : )

  3. You do not need a matir, which is why the machloqes

    1- ... is not about a matir, but about a mechayev. They are arguing about when one MUST daven deOraisa, no one questions the permissibility of davening when not chayav even derabbanan.

    2- ... is only deOraisa; all agree that derabbanan we must daven regularly.

  4. Great unknown where does Reb Moshe write that? Thx