PARSHAT BESHALAH: Being ‘God’s hand’

When we work toward positive goals, when we try to add holiness to human reality, we merit being the “hand of God.”

THE STORY ends with the familiar Parting of the Red Sea (photo credit: AMBOO WHO?/FLICKR)
THE STORY ends with the familiar Parting of the Red Sea
(photo credit: AMBOO WHO?/FLICKR)
This week’s Torah portion, Beshalah, begins with the Jewish nation’s Exodus from Egypt, finally liberated from slavery.
But when we continue reading the Torah portion, we discover that the liberation was not yet complete. A few days after they began their journey, the former slaves find out that their freedom is far from guaranteed. The Egyptian army, led by Pharaoh, chased after them and caught up to them as they camped on the shore of the Red Sea. The trap was perfect: They were surrounded by the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army in back of them.
The story ends with the familiar Parting of the Red Sea. The sea split into two, leaving land on which the Jewish nation could advance. The Egyptians, who were behind them, did not retreat. They continued chasing the fleeing nation into the dry path that had appeared in the sea. But then, just as the last Jew came up out of the sea onto the opposing shore, the dry path was flooded with water and the Egyptian army drowned along with its chariots and arms.
The Jews could not have hoped for a happier ending. When the bodies of the Egyptians – those who had been their slave-masters, torturers, and oppressors – washed up onto shore, the nation broke out into song, the Song of the Sea, which appears in this week’s parasha and which is recited every morning during Shacharit services.
In this sublime song, the nation expresses its joy and acknowledgment of the miracles God performed for it. The song describes the despair and the redemption, Pharaoh’s spitefulness versus God’s salvation. But a purpose is described as well: “You shall bring them and plant them on the mount of Your heritage, directed toward Your habitation, which You made, O Lord; the Sanctuary, O Lord, [which] Your hands founded” (Exodus 15:17).
This is how the nation expressed the recognition that the exodus to freedom was not an end unto itself. Freedom was essential in order to advance to the next stage: reaching the Land of Israel and building an independent Jewish state with the Temple on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem at its center.
This familiar Jewish hope, expressed in the prayer “May the Temple be built speedily in our days,” began there on the banks of the Red Sea. The Temple was built, stood for centuries, and then was destroyed. It was rebuilt and destroyed again. And since then, the Jewish nation has never forgotten its aspiration to see the Temple standing in all its glory in Jerusalem.
An interesting midrash reveals another layer in this unique verse. When we read this verse, we are convinced that the Temple was built by God Himself. But anyone who knows history knows that the First Temple in Jerusalem was built by King Solomon, and the Second Temple was built by the immigrants of the “Return to Zion.” Who, then, built the Temple?
“Bar Kappara taught: The handiwork of the righteous is greater than the creation of heaven and earth, as with regard to the creation of heaven and earth it is written: ‘My hand also has laid the foundation of the earth, and My right hand has spanned the heavens,’ whereas with regard to the handiwork of the righteous it is written: ‘the place which You have made for Yourself to dwell in, Lord, the Sanctuary, Lord, which your hands have established’” (Ketubot 5).
Bar Kappara, a sage from the Land of Israel in the first century, clarifies the language of the verses. In relation to the creation of the world, the hand of God is used, metaphorically of course, in the singular; whereas in relation to the building of the Temple, the hands of God are mentioned in plural. From this he concludes that the handiwork of the righteous is greater than all of creation.
The righteous, those who dedicated themselves to the purpose of building the Temple, are considered to be the “hands of God.” Therefore, building the Temple is considered “the handiwork of the righteous” and is attributed also to the hands of God.
This is what Bar Kappara wishes to teach us. When we work toward positive goals, when we try to add holiness to human reality, we merit being the “hand of God.”
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.