Az – the great and powerful

Who else can withhold his actions for the sake of giving all people freedom of choice?

Parting of the Red Sea (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Parting of the Red Sea
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
AS I was reviewing the Torah reading for the last day of Passover that vividly describes the parting of the Red Sea and the hymn of praise Moses and the children of Israel sang there, I found my mind wandering (as it does occasionally) to a memory from my childhood of one of my favorite movies, “The Wizard of Oz.”
I was in the living room watching it with my older sisters (actually, they were watching. I was peeking out from behind the sofa) as Dorothy approached the great and powerful wizard of Oz with the wicked witch’s broomstick.
I distinctly remember being more scared of the great and powerful Oz than of the witch herself.
Suddenly, her dog, Toto, bolts for the curtained-off section of the room and tugs on the curtain, revealing a man pulling at levers and twisting dials. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” booms the menacing-looking wizard but it’s too late. It’s all been an act, smoke, flashing lights and loud voices designed to frighten little girls from Kansas and little boys cowering behind sofas. Oz, the great and powerful, was just an ordinary man – a good man, perhaps, but not much of a wizard.
Flash forward to last week. I’m reading the Torah portion and know I should be thinking of the miracle that took place just a week after God liberated his people from the slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt. So why am I thinking of Dorothy in the Emerald City instead? At first I thought it was the homonymous play on words that started me on my trip down the yellow brick road. The Song of the Sea that Moses and the Children of Israel sang to God – Shirat Hayam in Hebrew – is also known by its first three words: Az yashir Moshe – (“Then did Moses sing”). “Az” and “Oz.”
Simply understood, the word az refers to a timely response. The Israelites were saved, the Egyptians drowned. Moses and the people “then” burst into song of jubilation and praise expressed in a single, collective az. The Yalkut Shimoni, a compilation of midrashim on the Bible, quotes Rabbi Akiva, the 2nd century sage, as saying that when Moses and people uttered “Az yashir,” God clothed Himself in a mantle of glory on which was inscribed every az in the bible that speaks of rejoicing. This great and powerful Az exposes Pharaoh for what he is – a powerless king who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt his own people, whether it means turning their water into blood rather than changing it back into water, or drowning his army in the Red Sea just to prove his power. Now the Children of Israel can truly see the man behind the curtain But behind the curtain Akiva weaves lies a terrible secret. For while the sages of his generation created myriads of midrashim about God’s omnipotence, which would keep them up all Seder night, they did not see it in their own lives. Their temple was destroyed.
Jerusalem was in ruins.
All that remained were the “four cubits of halakha,” the Oral Law, and now that was in danger of being crushed under Rome’s powerful sandal.
Where was the God who saved his people at the Red Sea? Where was the one about whom they exulted “mi kamokhah ba’elim, Adonai?” (Who is like you among the mighty, oh Lord?) (Exodus 15:11). Could it be he’s just a man behind a curtain pretending to be the powerful Az? The Mekhilta, another collection of midrashim, suggests rereading ‘ba’elim’ as ‘ba’ilmim’– “Who is like you among the silent ones.”
Who else can withhold his actions for the sake of giving all people freedom of choice? Were God to punish evildoers or reward the righteous immediately, He would be interfering with their personal freedom.
Repentance, even doing good, would be meaningless. This is our Az – the great and powerful, who holds back until the very end.
Like the sages’ world, ours isn’t a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Ours is a chaotic world where injustice seems to reign. But we have to remember that for 430 years, the Israelites in Egypt felt the same.
It was only the generation, which witnessed God’s triumph at the Red Sea that could sing “az” with all the rejoicing it carries. That generation pulled the curtain aside and saw, not just a man, but the great and powerful Az himself.
Perhaps one day, He will pull the curtain aside. That day we will add another az – “az yimalei s’hok pinu” – “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing” (Psalms 126). 
Rabbi Sidney Slivko, educator, lecturer and writer, is currently working on his book, ‘From God’s Mouth? – The Evolution of Oral Law.’ He lives in Jerusalem with his wife, journalist Michele Chabin, and their two children.