Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Parshat Beshalach 2

“Az Yashir Moshe ...”, “Then Moshe sang ...”. This explains the verse “Your throne is established from then (Az)” (Tehillim 93; 2), Rabbi Berachia said in the name of Rabbi Abahu: Even though You (G-d) have existed forever, Your throne was not sat in, and You were not made known in Your world until Your children sang the song [at the Reed Sea]. Therefore the verse states “Your throne is established from then (Az)” (Shemos Rabba 23).
How did the splitting of the Reed Sea and the Jews singing the Song of the Sea make G-d’s presence in the world more known than any of the other miraculous events seen so far? The Midrash implies that this miracle was in some way quite different from that which had gone before. Singing a song in praise had never happened until this time, as expressed in the following Midrash (ibid.):

“Az Yashir Moshe ...”, “Then Moshe sang ...”. This explains the verse “Her mouth is open with knowledge, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Mishlei 31; 26). From the creation of the world until Israel sang the song at the sea we never find any person who sang G-d’s praises. Adam was created but never sang praise. G-d saved Avraham from the fiery furnace and from the kings. Similarly He saved Yitzchak from the sacrificial knife and Ya’akov from the angel and from Esav and from the inhabitants of Shechem, and none of them sang a song of praise. However when the Jews came to the Reed Sea and it split for them immediately they sang praise before G-d.

It perhaps does not make sense that no one had ever been moved to praise G-d before in spite of the miracles witnessed. Rabbi Y. Y. L. Bloch explains in Shi’urei Da’as that the essence of a song is found in a new experience, and all other songs written about a normal event will be but pale imitations of the original. So, when the Midrash says that no one had ever sung G-d’s praise until this time, it implies that until now miracles could be regarded as understandable in spite of their greatness. The splitting of the sea was something qualitatively different, and not so easily explained.

When G-d created the universe he set up systems of laws, the physical laws which have been understood and explained by scientists, and the spiritual laws which are metaphysical. The ancients had a clear understanding of the spiritual laws, as we see from the Egyptian advisors, who could also replicate many of the plagues and miracles. The Talmud (Chagiga 12a) states: “When G-d was creating the world it was continually expanding like the thread of a loom, until G-d stopped it … This is the meaning of the name Sha-dai; G-d who said “enough” to His world”. G-d is infinite, the act of creation necessitated limiting His influence (Tzimtzum) in order to make a finite world. Sha-dai is the name of G-d which connotes His role as limiting, setting rules and laws by which the world functions.

According to the spiritual laws, a righteous person deserves to have miracles performed for him or her. Avraham had demonstrated his unquestioning faith and trust in G-d, so it was not surprising that he was saved from the furnace or from the four kings. Conversely the Egyptians had harshly enslaved the Israelites, and deserved the plagues with which they were punished. To the discerning observer none of these events would be worthy of song, because they merely follow the laws which G-d set up at creation, implicit in the name Sha-dai.

However the miracles at the sea were of an entirely different nature. The Zohar (Exodus 56) states that the sea didn’t want to split. It complained that the Jews were no worthier of salvation that were the Egyptians, they were both idolaters. G-d chose to save the Israelites not based on laws of reward and punishment, but on future events, that they would eventually accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. By judging based not on the present but on the larger picture of the purpose of the world, G-d was displaying His true essence in this world, which we know as the name Y-HV-H. Only through showing His favouritism to the Jews did G-d reveal His true nature, and His larger role in world history. This is the explanation of the verses “And G-d spoke to Moshe, and said to him, ‘I am Y-HV-H. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov by the name of G-d Sha-dai, but by my name Y-HV-H I was not known to them’” (Shemos 6; 2-3).

The Midrash, that G-d’s throne was not sat in until this time, nor was He known in the world is now clearly understood. Until this time everything could be attributed to the laws of creation, and Divine involvement with the world was concealed. But when the sea split before the Jews all of humanity witnessed and acknowledged G-d as the ruler of the world. This is why the Jews were moved to song, seeing a miracle, the like of which the world had never seen.

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