Parasha Beshalah: Accept the challenge

This miracle and prophecy was the fulfillment of God’s promise that the still-unborn Jewish nation would witness a new phase of history.

horses 521 (photo credit:
horses 521
(photo credit:
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.
This 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 realized.
Nahmanides explains how, through the Exodus in general and at the Red Sea in particular, God performed miracles showing His mastery over Nature.
Now God offers a new perspective. At the Red Sea, the Jews witnessed God in His role as Director of human history.
Working through 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 with them.
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 said.
“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 challenge.
“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 not.
“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.