Parshat Beshalach (2013)

Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Where can you point to G-d in your life?

Torah_shema_yad-2-softOne the greatest pleasures I have in my life is to be able to work with newly religious people and converts. Often times I find myself instructing those that have come home to Judaism because of their infinity with its message of justice and on account of the intellectual rightness of the faith. But many of these people come after seeking answers in the arms of other religions and dogmas, even people who followed personality cults or evangelists. Sometimes I have found people confiding in me that these religious experiences seem much more emotionally appealing than Judaism and it’s correctness. This often comes to the surface when people experience low points in life, and it causes a crisis of faith.

One of the most notorious of cases to show for this in the pop culture is that of “Dr Laura” Schlessinger who fell into obscurity a decade ago. She was well-known for converting to Conservative and then Orthodox Judaism. She was arguably the most notorious convert of her day, often using that as a basis to justify her moralizing as a talk-show host. However when she began to face difficulty and her stability unwind she not so quietly turned her back on Judaism, citing it as cold and rule driven. She then went on to praise the Evangelical Christians that extended themselves to her in the wake of her downfall. She did not care what was intellectually right in the end, she instead was very much preoccupied with being disturbed that G-d was so far off in Judaism. She admired the thoughts of Christianity because it had a personal god with a human name, she spoke of envying that closeness. G-d forbid that I gloat in this woman’s pain, however I use her as well-known example of someone who has put a lot on the record to say about how seemingly impersonal Judaism is. (see “Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion” at The Daily Jewish Forward)

She seems to have unsophisticatedly asked the question that many people often ask when they find themselves at an impasse with their Jewish faith, is the G-d of Judaism so transcendent that He has no virtues of closeness to us? I want us to answer that question for ourselves today. Where is G-d when we need to find Him in our lives? Also, why do we tend to depersonify our Judaism; why do we make G-d above being a person and push aside any personality in our faith?

In this parsha we have a perfect verse that would make a perfect statement to summarize the Jewish faith:

“And Israel saw the great hand

which Hashem used upon the Egyptians

and they feared the L-rd

and they believed in Hashem,

and in Moses His servant.”

| Vayar Yisra’el et-hayad hagdolah

| asher asah Hashem beMitzrayim

| vayir’u ha’am et-Hashem

| vaya’aminu b’Hashem

| uveMoshe avdo.

Genesis 14:31

This verse has all the richness and meaning as that of the Islamic Shahada (“This is no god but Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet…”), a paramount statement of faith for them. These are epic words.

This is the perfect moment in Judaism, here at the height of Israel’s salvation. The patriarchs had pointed forward to this moment, and all the prophets would look back to it as bearing witnesses of G-d’s greatness in crushing injustice and showing mercy towards His people. The enemy Egyptian army is vanquished under the waves and the people have gone free. Seeing all these miracles the people believed in G-d and in His prophet.

But strangely in the commentary of this verse we don’t see any great praises of Moses our Teacher, peace be upon him, instead it passes him right over. We have a phenomenal statement, but what does Rashi do with this text? Instead of taking a moment to pine upon Moses, our ultimate teacher, we instead see him distancing himself from a personality cult. He goes even one step further by choosing to take a moment to challenge anthropomorphism – the description of G-d by human characteristics. In this verse of commentary our tradition goes even above and beyond the tone of even our closest common faith, Islam, which also abhors physical descriptions of G-d as well. Our tradition stands out as even more abstract than that when it chooses to sideline even our prophet, maybe even more than he need be. At times we seem even cold and detached in comparison to Muslims when it comes to our faith. There is not much that we as Jews widely honor aside from our ancestors.

In the commentary for this verse Rashi makes the point that we are only talking figuratively about G-d throughout this story. When we say that G-d used His hand on Egypt we are saying that G-d extended His might towards Egypt. We aren’t saying that G-d has any actual hands that He extends towards anyone. When we speak of G-d’s hand we mean that G-d directs His might towards a certain direction.

Rashi also comments that when we say G-d is an “ish milchamah / a man of war” (Exodus 15:3) we need to tweak the way that we think about that. What we are trying to say that G-d is a warrior, we are not saying that G-d is a man. We are just using descriptions. G-d is not any one thing, nor does He have physical characteristics. Rashi makes this point several times throughout his commentary here.

Most sensible monotheists would agree with these statements. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that us Jews are often overly intellectual even in the most passionate of moments. We are at the pinnacle moment of the Exodus drama, where G-d can be seen in all His awesomeness. This is where Moses really shines. Capturing this moment made Charlton Heston infamous, for creeps sake! And instead of reveling in this glory for our G-d and prophet, Rashi chooses to talk about what G-d isn’t. Talk about anti-climactic.

The reason why is because our rabbis know how this story ends. Right now we have the people saying that they believe in G-d and Moses His prophet because of all the frightening deeds He did in saving them, but soon they will have forgotten about them and worship the Golden Calf. This stain always hangs over the story, even from the beginning.

We often ask ourselves how people could be of such little faith that they forget so quickly how amazing their G-d was and descend into idolatry. For me the reason appears revealed to us in this verse. It was not because of lack of belief, it was because of a strong belief that worked against them. They believed not just in G-d, but also in Moses. The had faith in Moses so much that the moment he disappeared and they assumed he was dead they found themselves lost. (see Exodus 32:1) Once Moses was no longer there for them there was left a vacuum in both physical and spiritual leadership. In disarray they almost naturally went down a path towards idolatry. They had nothing to connect to, so they fashioned for themselves a god out of their gold ornaments using the words, “Ayleh elohecha Yisrael asher he’elucha mei’eretz Mitzrayim / This is your god oh Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Or more literally these (ayleh) are your god. (see Exodus 32:4) When in a pinch and asked to show what they really think their G-d is they hold out their gold and declare that to be their true salvation.

Before we get too attached to anything or anyone our rabbis, even in middle of this awe-inspiring moment, choose to tone down the enthusiasm. They make the point that the nouns we use for G-d are irregular, because G-d is not a true noun. We can’t point to any one thing as being G-d, or any one person as being our guide towards G-d, because if we get confused we can start pointing at the wrong things.

But before we get there to that descent into error of the Golden Calf, here in this moment of glory of the Exodus story, we do get a pure glimpse of the Divine where all the people are able to perceive G-d. Moses and the children of Israel begin to sing the Shirat haYam – the Song at the Sea. Lost in celebration they become enraptured in praise of G-d. They sing out:

“I will sing to Hashem

for He is highly exalted,

horse and rider he hurled into the sea.

Yah is my strength and my song

and He has become my salvation;

this is my G-d!

And I will make Him a habitation,

G-d of my father,

and I will extol Him.”

| Ashirah l’Hashem

| ki-ga’oh ga’ah

| sus verochevo ramah vayam.

| Ozi vezimrat Yah

| vayehi-li lishu’ah

| zeh Eli

| ve’anvehu

| Elohei avi

| va’aromemenhu.

Exodus 15:1-2

As I stated, all of biblical and Jewish history points to this one moment in history. This is G-d’s ultimate display of glory. Witnessing this the children of Israel sing their song of praise, a liturgical hymn that we sing in our prayers to this day. Rashi in his commentary makes the most interesting commentary on this:

This is my Gd: He revealed Himself in His glory to them [the Israelites], and they pointed at Him with their finger [as denoted by זֶה (zeh), this]. By the sea, [even] a maidservant perceived what prophets did not perceive. — [from Mechilta]”

זה אלי: בכבודו נגלה עליהם והיו מראין אותו באצבע, ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראו נביאים:

Rashi for Exodus 15:2

I find this absolutely fascinating, especially in light of where the commentary of Rashi has gone so far. Rashi has gone far out of his way to make sure that we understand that G-d is not corporeal nor has any semblance of actual physicality. He harps over and over again on this point, that the voice of the Torah is just being figurative. And then he throws this zinger at us, he has the Israelites literally pointing at G-d with their finger! It may seem odd why he goes there, but if we consider it the word zeh (this) – it has the same tendency to come with a hand motion as the word ayleh (these). Rashi says that in this one moment of glory people were able to perceive G-d so intimately, so closely that they were literally able to point toward Him.

We need to ask ourselves, what is that Rashi means by this? If we are not talking about a physical form, as G-d cannot be described as any one thing or thoroughly by anyone, how is it that they are able to point towards G-d? I believe the answer is found in the words “vayehi-li lishu’ah / and He has become my salvation” that precede their point and exclamation “zeh Eli / this is my G-d.” When they pointed to G-d they had no form to call attention to, the only evidence was His deeds of salvation. They pointed towards what G-d had done for them and they exclaimed “This is my G-d.” They were declaring if one wanted to see their G-d, the only thing they needed to see, in fact the best demonstration of Him was through the things that He has done for them.

My friends, when we consider our Jewish faith I want us to stop judging it in light of the characteristics of other religions. We need to not be disturbed that G-d may be lofty and abstract in our faith. Yes, we worship a G-d that we cannot depict in any manner and whose Name we cannot even intone. There may seem like there is very little personal comforts of religion, it demands a higher maturity of us that not always so comforting. We are called to faith in a way that may seem as sobering as telling a child there is no Tooth Fairy. But it doesn’t have to be that way for us.

We aren’t saying that G-d cannot be seen in our lives, or that G-d cannot be found. No instead our faith is so dynamic that we can even point towards our G-d. But the way we identify with our G-d is by pointing towards His salvations that He has made in our lives, in what He has done for us. This faith is not impersonal, that is a very personal type of faith. G-d is very close, and very easy to be found, we can point to Him in all the trials of life that we have been saved from. We can point to Him being a strength for us in our times of total weakness! Our faith is not dispassionate, quite to the contrary, we have such a dynamic faith when asked to show evidence for our G-d we can just use our lives as examples and say, “See….this… this is my G-d.”

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