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Parashat Beshallach (Shabbat Shirah) 5775 — 01/28/2015

Parashat Beshallach (Shabbat Shirah) 5775 — 01/28/2015

This is my Gd and I will glorify Him (15:2)

The merest maidservant at the Sea saw more than [the prophet] Yechezkel ben Buzi [Ezekiel]. (Mechilta ad loc)

Come and see how great were those who crossed the Sea.  Moses pleaded and beseeched before Gd that he should merit seeing Gd’s Divine Image, “Please, show me Your glory!” (33:19).  Yet Gd told him, “You may not see My face.”  But every Israelite who descended into the Sea pointed with his finger and said, “This is my Gd and I will glorify him.”  (Shemot Rabbah 23:15)

First, a linguistic point to set the stage.  In Rabbinic exegesis the word “this” (zeh) connotes something almost tangible or visible, that one can point to.  Thus in the Haggadah we read “Because of this – at the time when matzah and bitter herbs are there before you.”  We are to tell the story of the Exodus when we can physically point to the “props” we are going to be using to make it real.  In the same way, the Rabbis derive that Gd’s existence and presence had become tangible to the whole nation after crossing the Sea by the use of the word “this” in the Song of the Sea.

Now the question becomes, how is it that a maidservant saw Gd more clearly than one of the greatest of the prophets (Yechezkel), or perhaps even than Moshe Rabbeinu himself?  Rav Kook provides insight into the unique characteristic of the splitting of the Sea:

Our world is governed by the framework of cause and effect.  When the underlying rule of nature was suspended during the splitting of the Red Sea, the entire system of causality was arrested.  During that time, the universe lost its cloak of natural law, and revealed itself as a pure expression of divine will. … When Gd split the Sea, all laws of nature were temporarily suspended.  Gd took “direct control” of the universe.  Those witnessing this miracle were instantly aware of Gd’s intervention and providence … They did not need to first examine the natural system of causality, and from this, recognize the prime Cause of creation.  (Gold from the Land of Israel)

We live in a scientific culture, which takes as its fundamental principle that everything happens according to the laws of nature.  Further, these laws are, in principle, intelligible by human intellect and open to objective verification.  In this view, the cosmos is a closed system.  It began at some point with the “Big Bang” (which involved the creation of space and time themselves, not a kind of explosion within an existing framework of space and time), and has evolved ever since then on its own, according to its own set of immutable laws.  There is no room for the miraculous, only the coincidental – a kind of causal narrative that we read into events for our own psychological purposes.

Jewish tradition takes a complementary perspective, as we see from Rav Kook’s discussion.  On the level of the physical universe, the scientific view holds, at least most of the time.  We do see that the universe runs in an orderly fashion, and in fact it is difficult to see how we could live in the physical world were this not so.  After all, we need to have some feeling of assurance that the sun will rise tomorrow in the east and run its course and set in the west.  Nonetheless, this is only part of the picture, or perhaps one perspective on the whole picture.

The scientific worldview, based as it is on the objective means of gaining knowledge, can really only function in the physical world.  Questions like “what was before the Big Bang” are, by definition, beyond the purview of science (even taking “before” in a non-temporal sense, since time itself was created in the Big Bang, as we noted above).  Our tradition has no such limitations.  In fact, we recognize an entire non-physical world that underlies the physical world and interacts with it according to its own laws, and we recognize Gd as underlying all the worlds, and managing their existence and activity according to His Will, which is unknowable to us, except to the extent that He chooses to reveal it to us, as the Psalmist says, His greatness is beyond investigation (145:3).

In fact, as Rav Kook states, the physical world is a “cloak,” or a garment, that covers the essential nature of reality.  The image of a garment is significant, for a garment both conceals and reveals.  We wear clothes that reveal our shape (more  or less, depending on how tight they are), but conceal our essence.  The physical world reveals the infinitely intelligent nature of the Creator, but conceals His Will behind a curtain of seemingly unalterable natural law.  In fact, it seems that the better we get at unravelling nature’s secrets, the more Gd hides Himself behind this cloak of scientific structure, and the more bound and determined we become to try and read Him out of the script.

I think this understanding gives us some insight into what happened at the Sea.  At the Sea, Gd revealed Himself directly, and the Jewish people saw that in fact everything that they thought they knew about the way the world functions was sadly inadequate.  In fact, the only causality there is in the creation emanates from the First Cause, that is, from Gd’s Will.  The Kabbalists speak of Gd’s “contracting” himself to “leave room” where He is not, so to speak, in order to provide space for the finite to exist along with the infinite.  (This makes Gd the first “independent contractor.”)  From our discussion we see that one aspect of this “contraction” is that Gd agrees to function within the world of nature according to the rules of natural law.  Except when He sees fit to make an exception.  There are times when Gd allows His infinite nature to “intrude,” so to speak, on the finite, and to reset or reorganize the functioning of the finite to further His purposes.

This discussion is from our perspective as dwellers in the material world.  Our own perspective is limited, and we see Gd as some entity outside ourselves.  Of course, from Gd’s perspective things are quite different.  Gd is infinite and His Unity is without parts (see Rambam’s second principle of faith).  Everything that happens, happens within Gd, and according to Gd’s Will and nothing else.  At times, as in the splitting of the Sea, Gd allows us to have a glimpse of His perspective in a concrete fashion.  Then, even a maidservant can say This is my Gd.  For those of us not lucky enough to be around at those special moments, we have to fall back on the various techniques of our Tradition to try to adjust our perception and our understanding, slowly and progressively, to approximate as closely as we can Gd’s perspective.  If we make this kind of self-development our priority in life, perhaps we can get at least a brief glimpse of the reality of the maidservants at the Sea.

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 16: The Wicked Son – What Does He Say?

What does the wicked son say?  “What is this service to you?”  “To you” and not to him.  Since he removes himself from the collective consciousness of the Jewish people, he denies our most basic beliefs.  You must set his teeth on edge and tell him: “Because of this that Hashem did for me when I came out of Egypt.”  “For me” and not for him.  Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.  (Haggadah, my translation)

Every generation has its wicked sons, the alienated, the rebellious, the undisciplines, the hedonist.  Rabbi Sacks points out that the historical context in which the Haggadah was put together was one of intense persecution of the Jews on the part of the Roman empire.  There were those who simply couldn’t withstand the test and abandoned Jewish practice and the Jewish people.  Nevertheless, they were considered to have betrayed our people and our mission, and in fact, to have betrayed the commitment we made to Gd at Mt. Sinai, and were condemned for it not only in the Rabbinic literature, but in the liturgy as well (e.g. the wicked son, and the “blessing” for the slanderers in the amidah).

Now we are faced with a different, and perhaps more difficult challenge, for which Rabbi Sacks reframes the words of the Haggadah.  Now, at least in the West, we are no longer threatened by pogroms and anti-Semitic laws designed to suppress Jewish life (although some of that is starting to creep back into European Jewish life).  Instead, we have to contend with an embarrassment of riches.  We have become so comfortable in our exile, and so assimilated into Western culture, that we have abandoned our traditions, and often our people, not out of fear, but out of indifference.  In this case, is it any surprise that our children don’t find their Jewish tradition of any use to them?  In this case, our children’s question ceases to be a snarky, wicked, rhetorical question – it is a heartfelt plea for reassurance!  What is this service to you, Mom and Dad?  If you don’t take the tradition seriously, why should I?  If you just talk the talk, but your priorities are elsewhere when push comes to shove, what am I supposed to take away from these mixed messages (and mixed metaphors)?  These are questions that really require an answer, but before we can answer them for our children, we need to answer them for ourselves!