Parshat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them move forward” (Exodus 14:15)
Chapters 14 and 15 of the Book of Exodus are among the most significant in the Bible from a theological perspective, defining for us the fundamental difference between monotheism and idolatry. The first opens with God’s instructions that the Israelites: “Turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahirot between Migdal and the sea, before the Baal of the North….by the Sea.”(Ex. 14:1).
How strange that the description of their resting place – which will become a sacred shrine marking the most wondrous miracle of the Exodus, the splitting of the Sea – is associated with two major idols, Horus and Baal Zephon; to add insult to injury, the very same description is repeated only eight verses later! (Ex. 14:9).
I would argue that the Bible is here contrasting two different attitudes, one that is representative of idolatry and the other that refers to God’s miracles. The Israelites have just left Egyptian enslavement, but the slave mentality has not yet left the Hebrew psyche. They are just at Pi-Hahirot, at the gateway to freedom (herut), but they are still engulfed in the paralysis engendered by the idolatrous Horus Temple; they are still under the power of the master-god of the North (Baal).
Idolatry, you see, enervates its adherents, renders them powerless before the gods whom they created in their own image; these gods are simply more powerful creatures, filled with foibles and failings of mortal beings – only on a grander scale. It is these gods who rule the world; the only thing that the human being can hope to do is to bribe or propitiate the gods to treat them kindly..
Moses is still at the beginning of his career; he has much more to learn about Jewish theology. Hence he tells the nation, frightened by the specter of pursuing Egyptians behind them and a raging sea in front of them, “Stand still and you shall see the salvation of the Lord… The Lord will do battle for you and you shall remain silent” (Ex. 14:13-14(
God then steps in, countermanding Moses’s words. “Why do you cry out in prayer at Me?” God asks, meaning: I, the omnipresent Lord of the Universe, empowered you by creating you in My image; I expect people to act, to journey forward, to take responsibility for human – Jewish – destiny. Now that they are at the cusp, or gateway to freedom, let them move ahead, no matter the risk.
God wants Moses and all of Israel to understand that He is not another idol, not even the greatest or most powerful of the idols, who renders humans powerless and awaits human gifts of propitiation and prayers. God is rather non-material Spirit, best (but imperfectly) described as Love (the four-letter name JHVH), Compassion, Freely-giving Grace, Long-suffering, Loving-Kindness and Truth (Ex. 34:6) who created human beings in His image, empowers them to act in history as His partners, expects them to develop His Divine traits of character and charges them to bring freedom and security to all the families of the earth.
The Israelites are learning this lesson as they stand at the gateway to freedom (pi-herut) and nationhood witnessing the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea. They dare not stand still and silent waiting for a deus ex machina to extricate them from a seemingly impossible situation.
They must initiate the action.
And so God commands them to “move forward,” to jump into the waters, risking their lives for freedom; only then will they truly deserve to live as free human beings under God. Our Sages maintain that indeed they learned this lesson at the sea, when they sang out: “This is my God, ve’anvehu” (Ex. 15:2); even a maidservant at the sea saw what the later prophets did not see” (Rashi ad loc citing the Mekhilta.)
Apparently, their lesson is to be understood from the Hebrew word ve’anvehu. What does this word mean? Some commentaries suggest it means “I will glorify Him” either by building Him a Temple (Targum, naveh), or by singing His praises (Rashi) or by beautifying (na’eh) His commandments (a beautiful succa). The Midrash Mekhilta renders the text as two words, Ani ve’hu, I will be like Him, loving, compassionate, truthful etc. But both of these sources stress either what we will do for God or whom we will become for God; in either case, God is at the center.
R. Hamma in the name of R. Hanina suggests that the word v’anvehu means that I learn from the Bible to act in the manner in which He acts towards humanity: “Just as God clothes the naked, so must we; just as God visits the sick, so must we; just as God comforts the mourner, so must we” (Sota 14a)
It’s not what we do for God which is cardinal, it is not even the character traits which we develop which are cardinal; it is rather what we do, and we are empowered by God to do for our fellow human beings in order to perfect the world in the Kingship of God. This is true ethical monotheism.