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B’shalach 5763-2003

“Bringing G-d Home”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, contains many historic and dramatic moments. The narrative describes the departure of the People of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt, as well as the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea, the statutes and judgments given at Marah, the manna that fell from heaven, the well that followed the people of Israel in the wilderness and the war with Amalek. Despite these many themes, this coming Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, which of course refers to Exodus chapter 15, and the song that was sung by Moses and the children of Israel as praise to G-d in acknowledgment of the miraculous parting of the waters of the Red Sea, enabling the people’s salvation from the hands of the Egyptians.

The reason that this Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shira despite the many other important themes is because according to Rabbinic tradition at the moment that the Israelites sang their song, the people’s souls attained the highest state of exaltation, their hearts became wellsprings overflowing with Torah, and the sounds of their words was comparable to the voice of the Al-mighty.

Eliyahu Kitov, in his extraordinary “Book of Our Heritage,” points out that with the power of this song, the people of Israel implanted song and rejoicing in the hearts of Israel until the end of all generations. That is the reason, say the rabbis, that the Shira, the song, begins with an unusual introductory phrase (Exodus 15:1): “Va’yom’roo lay’mor,” and they spoke saying (in the present tense), underscoring that the song that the people spoke at the sea, resulted in the continuous uttering of song for all future generations.

The Shira that was sung at the crossing of the sea is a most powerful paean of praise to the Al-mighty who rescued the fleeing Israelites. The introductory words of the song (Exodus 15:2): “Oh’zee v’zimraht yah va’y’hee lee lee’shoo’ah,” G-d is my might and my praise and he has been my salvation–reflect the thorough exultation of the people. At that euphoric moment, the Jews saw G-d so clearly and manifestly that the Israelites could literally point their fingers and say: “Zeh kay’lee v’ahn’vay’hoo, Eh’loh’kay ah’vee vah’ah’ro’m’men’hoo,” This is my G-d and I will praise him, the G-d of my fathers, and I will exalt him! Clearly, the spirit and power reflected in these words are virtually unparalleled in the annals of human history.

Aside from the extraordinary beauty and passion of these words, this particular poetic praise of G-d, as is true of many of the words of the Torah, harbors a powerful philosophical and theological message. In the second half of this lyrical verse the poet declares, “The G-d of my father and I will exalt him,” the implication being that the G-d of family traditions is worthy of being raised up and held high in an honored place. In contrast, the first part of the verse declares, “This is my G-d and I will praise Him” underscoring a personal, emotional relationship with G-d. How do we reconcile the opposing concepts of these two phrases?

Tradition posits that there are two types of spiritual believers. Some religionists believe simply because of family tradition, while others believe only after much search, study and analysis. Both these believers are alluded to in the opening lines of the central Jewish prayer, the Amidah–the silent devotion. The Amidah prayer begins with the words, “Baruch atah Hashem Eh’lo’kay’nu v’elo’kay ah’vo’tay’nu,” Blessed art You G-d, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, “Eh’lokay Avraham, Eh’lokay Yitzchak, v’Eh’lokay Yaakov,” The G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob.

There are people who believe in G-d simply because it is their family tradition.

In the early 1900s, when Theodore Roosevelt was campaigning as the Republican candidate for president, he once stopped at a remote Midwest village that was populated by farmers who were fiercely loyal Democrats. One of the old-time farmers heckled Roosevelt incessantly, preventing the candidate from being heard. Exasperated, Roosevelt screamed: “Why don’t you allow me to speak?” The farmer replied, “Mr. Roosevelt, my great-granddaddy was a Democrat, my granddaddy was a Democrat, my daddy is a Democrat and I’m a Democrat too!” Annoyed, Roosevelt shot back: “Well what you have been if your great-granddaddy was a jackass?!” The farmer calmly replied, “Then I’d be a Republican!”

Some people blindly adopt their family’s religious traditions simply because their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were believers. Our Amidah prayer as well, indicates that Jacob believed because his father Isaac was a believer, and that Isaac believed because his father Abraham believed. That’s what’s clearly implied in the Amidah text: “Eh’lo’kay ah’vo’tay’nu,” the G-d of our fathers.

But, the opening text of the Amidah also speaks of “Eh’lo’kay’nu,” our G-d?! Note that the text does not read “Eh’lo’kay Avraham, Yitzchak, v’Yaakov,” the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? But rather the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob. Clearly Jacob believed in G-d because of his father, and because of Isaac’s tradition, but Jacob also struggled and wrestled with the concept of G-d so that he could relate to G-d in his own personal and unique manner. The beliefs of Isaac and of Abraham were also the result of intense personal quests.

That’s exactly what’s underscored in the verse we cited of the Shira. The people sang out: “Eh’loh’kay ah’vee vah’ah’ro’m’men’hoo,” The G-d of my father–I can exalt and raise Him up. If I relate to G-d only as the G-d of my father, all I can do is put G-d on a pedestal and hold Him high.

However, if I relate to G-d as “zeh kay’lee”–if G-d is my G-d–then “v’ahn’vay’hoo,” I can exalt Him. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) states that the word, ahn’vay’hoo, stems from the root word “nah’veh,” which means home. If G-d is truly my G-d, says Hirsch, if I’ve built a personal relationship with G-d through study and analysis, then I can bring G-d home.

Jewish religious and family traditions mandate that our people believe collectively in G-d. But for the contemporary Jew it is particularly important to work on our personal beliefs and our personal relationships with G-d–so that we can indeed bring G-d home.

May you be blessed.