(photo credit: http://artframe.co.il)
This week we read of one of the greatest miracles, the splitting of the Red Sea.
It was a moment when all the Jewish people experienced God’s presence. Rashi
quotes a famous midrash which teaches that even the simplest handmaid
experienced prophecy more powerful than that granted to Ezekiel.
miracle and prophecy was the fulfillment of God’s promise that the still-unborn
Jewish nation would witness a new phase of history. A couple of weeks ago, we
saw how God made His presence known to our forefathers as El Shaddai. The
splitting of the Red Sea was the culmination of God’s promise that the Jewish
People had entered a new phase of history, in which they would experience Him by
His name and attributes of Hashem (YHVH).
What is the significance of
this new perception of God? Rashi explains that in the past, God made great
promises to our forefathers, but He had not yet fulfilled them. Everything lay
in potentia, but the promise of a Jewish nation had not yet been
Nahmanides explains how, through the Exodus in general and at
the Red Sea in particular, God performed miracles showing His mastery over
Now God offers a new perspective. At the Red Sea, the Jews
witnessed God in His role as Director of human history.
history, God is acting in partnership with the Jewish people. He has freed His
nation from slavery. Now He is working with them to build a Jewish nation that
will receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and live by its ideals and commandments in
the Promised Land. The people will prove stubborn, fickle and complex.
Nevertheless, the eternally patient God will make them His partners and work
Our role and our challenge as the partners of God in history
is beautifully expressed in a story about one of the Jewish leaders of the 20th
century, Rabbi Shimon Schwab.
Rabbi Schwab writes in his memoirs that
when he was a young man, he yearned to learn more and more Torah. He studied at
the famous Torah academies of Telshe and Mir, but was still desperate to learn
with the saintly scholar Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the Hafetz Haim.
Eventually, in 1930, he travelled by foot to Radin, the rabbi’s home town. It
was a long and difficult journey, but he reached the yeshiva, found a seat and
began to study with great diligence and dedication. But to his dismay there was
no opportunity to meet the renowned scholar. He waited patiently, but after six
months could bear it no longer.
Plucking up his courage, he went to the
home of the Hafetz Haim, knocked on the door and explained what he wanted. The
Hafetz Haim welcomed him into his sparsely furnished house, offered him tea and
cake, and proceeded to offer the first lesson.
But before he started, the
Hafetz Haim, who was himself a kohen (descendent of the priest/teachers who
served in the Temple and whose descendents will serve there in the future) asked
the young man whether he was a kohen as well. The young man responded that he
was not. And then the Hafetz Haim started to teach. This is what he
“When the Messiah comes, he will bring us all to the Land of
Israel. We’ll sail to the port of Jaffa, and from there we will make our way to
Jerusalem. Once we arrive in Jerusalem, there will be tremendous excitement, we
will head to the Temple Mount and then make our way to the Beit Hamikdash (the
Temple). But there we will have to separate: I will enter with the kohanim and
you will have to wait outside. I say this not to upset you, but to offer you a
“Years ago, when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai and then
panicked at the apparent disappearance of their leader, they asked Aaron to
build them a golden calf. When Moses came down from the mountain and saw the
terrible sight – the Jewish people dancing around an idol – he proclaimed, ‘Let
those who are for God follow me’ Only one tribe responded – my ancestors, the
Tribe of Levi. That is why we are the priest/teachers and you are
“So I beg you, next time when you here the call of the God of
History, respond immediately.”
This was the message of the Hafetz Haim.
We are privileged to live in a generation which, like the generation that
crossed the Red Sea, has the honor of seeing God working in history. God calls
to us to perfect the world. This time we dare not refuse.The writer is
the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs,
and chief rabbi of Efrat.