Parashat Beshalah: God is waiting for us

When the Israelites acted for spiritual freedom, God triumphed over Pharaonic enslavement and idolatry.

Pharaoh 88 (photo credit: )
Pharaoh 88
(photo credit: )
"The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father's God, and I will exalt Him." (Exodus 15:2) Our biblical portion describes in both prose (Chapter 14) and poetry (Chapter 15) the final victory of the Hebrew slaves over the Egyptian despots: The Israelites march into the Reed (Red) Sea, Moses extends his hands over the waves, the waters split before the advancing Israelites, turning into watery walls enabling the nation to pass through on dry land. Their would-be captors, however, are overwhelmed, drowned by the avenging tides. But what was the precise significance of this victory? Did the Israelites defeat their Egyptian masters, or did the God of Israel triumph over the gods of the most powerful nation on earth? Secondly, there seems to be a strange and superfluous identification of the spot at which the Israelites entered the Sea: "And God said to Moses, saying 'Instruct the children of Israel that they dwell and encamp before the mouth of Hirot [Horus] between Migdal and the sea in front of the Master of the North [Hebrew: Ba'al Tzefon]; opposite there shall they encamp near the sea" (Ex. 14:2). And then, seven verses later, we read, "and the Egyptians pursued after them and overtook them, encamped near the sea... near the mouth of Hirot in front of the Master of the North" (14:9). Apparently both places refer to idolatrous shrines, Hirot being identified with the god Horus and the Master of the North being the last powerful Egyptian god left (see Rashi 14:2). But why highlight idolatrous shrines? Surely it would have been sufficient to tell us that the Israelites encamped near the entrance to the Reed Sea. Did the Bible have to mention places of idolatry twice? And finally, God seems to be expressing a sharp correction - even rebuke - to Moses. The Israelites wail (in prayer) to God and in complaint to Moses for having taken them out of Egypt only to die at the hands of the pursuing Egyptians (14:10, 11). Moses comforts them, telling them to remain standing where they are (hityatzvu) and they shall see a miraculous salvation (14:13). "The Lord will do battle for you and you remain silent" (14:14). In the very next verse, God seems to be chiding Moses, "And the Lord said to Moses, 'Why are you crying out [in prayer] to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them begin to move [into the sea].' They dare not merely stand silently and wait for Me. They must act first!" (14:15 - see Rashi, ad loc). How and why is God tweaking Moses' vision? To properly understand our text, I submit that the Hebrew word Hirot is closely allied to the word herut, which means freedom; the obvious nuance is that at this historic moment, the Hebrews are poised between the Egyptian idolatry of Ba'al Tzefon and their imminent freedom under the supreme God of love. Egyptian idolaters perceived a mysterious world controlled by jealous and warring gods; every phenomenon was actuated by these gods, before whom the individual was powerless. All that humans could hope to do was propitiate or bribe the gods with gifts and ritual. Let us switch gears for a moment, and examine a Hebrew phrase sung by the Israelites after the splitting of the sea: "This is my God and I shall glorify Him" (ve'anvehu, 15:2). The Hebrew, which many translations take to mean "glorify", is obscure. Targum Onkelos builds on the root word naveh which means "house," and so translates, "I shall build Him a house [or Temple]." Rashi isolates the Hebrew noi, which means "beauty", and explains the word, "I shall speak of His beauty and praise," I will praise Him to the world and pray to Him with words of praise. The sages of the Talmud give two other interpretations: "I will beautify His commandments before Him," also building on Rashi's basic root noi, but taking it to signify beautifying the ritual objects - succa, tefillin, Kiddush cup - which He asks us to use, and finally breaking down anvehu into two words, "ani veHu," I and He: I will strive to walk in His ways, to emulate His attributes. It is this last interpretation which I find most meaningful. Serving God in the deepest sense doesn't mean building Him a Temple, or praising Him in prayer, or adorning Him, as it were, with beautiful ritual objects; all these things - if done for the wrong reasons - may merely be a form of propitiating (and even bribing) the king of all kings. Unlike idolatry, we do not make our God in our image, desirous of a fancy home, words of praise and ritual gifts. Our God is a God of love, compassion and truth who desires a world of freedom, morality and peace. We, created in His image, serve Him best when we adopt His attributes, walk in His ways, and attempt to perfect His world with freedom, morality and peace. We pray to God not in order to praise Him but to move closer to Him, to better adopt His creativity and loving kindness. We obey commandments with ritual objects and study His divine words not in order to please Him, but in order to internalize His values and bring about His world vision. Remember; we are created in God's image. That makes us free just as He is free, and God wants us to choose to create and not destroy; to be His partners in perfecting an imperfect world (Isaiah 45:7). God Himself is waiting for - is even (as it were) dependent upon - our actions and initiatives to redeem humanity and realize the vision of messianism. God wants us to act in this world with courage and integrity. Hence God chided Moses when he tells the Israelites to stand in place and wait for God to do all the work. That is idolatry, not Abrahamic ethical monotheism. And so the hassidic masters reinterpreted Moses' words (Ex. 14:14) to mean: "…God will give you bread [yilahem lachem - lehem means bread], but you must first plow [taharishun can mean to be silent or to plow]". And so the best interpretation I know of ve'anvehu is given by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: "This is my God and I must become His house" - I must be an expression of His will in every word I utter, every thing I do. Then truly ani v'Hu, I and He, will establish a partnership dedicated to the perfecting of the world. The victory at the Reed Sea was a triumph of freedom (herut) over subjugation, of a God who wanted a true and free partner over a system that demanded its gods be slavishly praised and handsomely bribed. When the Israelites acted for spiritual freedom, God triumphed over Pharaonic enslavement and idolatry. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.