Do Not Pray: Sotah 37

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
It is an amazing aspect of the human condition that two people can see the same thing yet see it most differently. That is likely why the Torah both requires and at the same time allows us to accept the testimony of two witnesses. Even if one is not (knowingly) lying we cannot rely on just one witness to convict a criminal or even to actually require monetary payment[1]. If a second witness corroborates that of the first we can assume - and that is all it is - that their report is true. 
If such is the case by events we witness ourselves how much more so by interpreting events that happened years and centuries before we were born. Even if we have a written report on what occurred no text can record everything - and they generally do not even attempt to do so - nor can it give you tone, inflection and body movement of the speaker. Is it any wonder that biblical interpretation is rich, varied and often contradictory? No two, let alone, seventy faces are ever going to look alike.
“Rav Meir said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another, each wishing to descend into the sea first. Then sprang forward the tribe of Binyamin and descended first into the sea...Rav Yehuda said to [R. Meir]: That is not what happened; but each tribe was unwilling to be the first to enter the sea. Then Nachshon ben Aminadav sprang forward and descended first into the sea (Sotah 36b-37a).”
What an amazing and beautiful debate. Rav Meir claims the Jews fought over the right to jump into the sea first and Rav Yehuda claims they fought to avoid jumping into the sea. This debate pretty well sums up the contradictory nature of the generation that left Egypt. Were they great believers in G-d, defying their Egyptian masters as they put the blood on their doorposts? Or were they non-believers who thought a golden calf could replace G-d and who demonstrated lack of faith almost at every opportunity? Did they demonstrate their desire for the word of G-d by travelling to a barren desert leaving behind a land where “fish, melons, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic” were available for free (Bamidbar 11:5)? Or were they freeloaders joining, as the “mixed multitude” of Egyptians did, with the leader who appeared to be winning at the moment? 
It need not be stated that all the above are true. And there is no need to explain (though it might be true) that it was different people doing different things. The same person can display both great faith and great faithlessness. It is even possible that both Rav Meir and Rav Yehuda are right, that the Jewish people both fought to jump in and to avoid jumping in the same body of water. At least so explains the Lev Aryeh. Miles away from the sea marching triumphantly all said they would be the first to jump in first when they got to the sea. But when they actually got there “that is not what happened”. All of a sudden the bravado was gone and everyone looked to someone else to lead the way. How telling and how human! We talk big in the abstract but when it comes time to act is cheap[2]
What a most fitting aggadic discussion for masechet Sotah where we have discussed how one can be an adulterer - a most heinous crime against man and G-d - and at the same time be full of merits. We are little different from the Jews in the desert. 
While the tribes argued whether to jump or not to jump Moshe was “engaged for a long while in prayer”. Prayer is nice but one must know when one should or should not pray. “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, 'My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and thou prolong prayer before Me[3]!’” When people are “drowning” that is not the time for prayer. It is the time to act. “He said to Him, 'Master of the Universe, what is there in my power to do?' He replied to him, Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward.”
When in distress we often turn to G-d in prayer asking for His help. And in theory such reflects the deepest display of faith, that it is G-d who runs the world. Yet often this is at best inadequate, and harmful at worst. If there are problems in the world it is up to us not G-d to fix them. When there is something to be done we must do it - not pray to G-d that He somehow do it for us. We are to move forward - not knowing what the response of G-d will be. Only when we take the plunge does the sea split. 
It was because Nachshon, who was to become the leader of the tribe of Yehuda, took the initiative that the tribe of Yehuda merited the monarchy (Sotah 37a). In times of crisis leaders act, moving forward into unchartered waters leaving prayer for another time. 
[1] One witness does however force the defendant to take an oath that money is not owed -or to pay.
[2] I must thank Rabbi Dr. Aaron Levine z”l for this insight from his unique course Contemporary Economic Systems which analyzed economic systems from a Jewish perspective. The Lev Aryeh uses this notion to explain why self-assessment of how we might act is so unreliable.  
[3] A more famous parallel Midrash - addressed not to man but to the angles has G-d exclaiming “My creatures are drowning in the sea and you say song” (Megillah 10b). Our Midrash is much more striking especially when we consider that no one was yet drowning. We must act before disaster strikes. Once it does our choice of actions will likely be much more limited and sadly prayer may be all we can do.