Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Walk Article


Shvi'i Shel Pesach-5775

Rabbi David Walk


            The seventh day of Pesach is a very important date on our Jewish calendar.  It commemorates a truly significant event, namely the crossing of the Sea.  This miracle was so central to our tradition that it might have merited its own holiday if we didn't see it in the context of the continuation of the exodus from Egypt. The magnitude of this event is so enormous that we have instituted the custom of reading the Song of the Sea everyday.  It is said that anyone who senses the scale of that event daily is guaranteed a place in the world to come.  Please, forgive me, but I'm from that generation that can't think about the crossing of the Sea without picturing Charlton Heston standing on a rock and telling everyone, 'to see the salvation of the Lord!'  Of course, my kids laugh at me because they know how much special effects have improved since 1956.  But the image is stuck in my brain.  The truth is so much more complex.  When contemplating the crossing of the Sea, we are supposed to contemplate our relationship with God.  And how do we do that?

            I believe that the critical phrase to understanding the place of the splitting of the Sea is in the poem sung by our ancestors during the spectacle.  There are many beautiful and meaningful verses in this poem describing their awe, but I believe that the crucial one begins with the words, 'This is my God.'  These words were borrowed by Herman Wouk in 1959 to title his very moving religious memoirs.  Mr. Wouk returned to Orthodox Judaism in his mid-20's, and to a great extent this book explains his commitment to the life style of his grandfather. 

            This phrase is extremely important beyond Mr. Wouk's use of it to introduce his relationship with God through traditional Judaism.  Many people believe that the phrase is the source of the famous Midrash that the lowest echelons of society saw more of God at the splitting of the Sea than the great prophet Ezekiel saw when the heavens opened for him outside Babylon.  It's really the only time that we use the demonstrative pronoun 'this' when referring to God.  It describes a very special moment and experience. But what is the content and consequence of that experience.  Well, that depends on how we translate the next word, v'anveihu.  The most popular translation to this tricky word is either 'glorify' or 'praise'.  In other words, the powerful reaction to witnessing God was basically verbal.  We used our limited verbal skills to honor God.  However, this is not the authoritative translation of Onkelos (35-120).  He translates, 'and I will build a sanctuary for God.'  The term nivei can mean 'an abode'. Therefore the result of this encounter was the building of the Mishkan or portable Temple in the desert.  One last common approach to this difficult term has entered Jewish law. Based on the Hebrew root na'eh, or 'beautiful', many translate the term as 'to adorn God'.  This becomes the mitzvah of hidur mitzvah, or performing mitzvoth in the most attractive way, buying a nicer Kiddush cup or a prettier challah cover.  So, which is it 'glorify', 'house' or 'beautify'?  I'm going to opt for door number four.

            Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), jin one of his most famous works, And From There You Shall Seek, chose to translate the term in a more esoteric way.  Following an almost mystical approach to our verse, the Rav renders the verse, 'This is my God and I will imitate Him.'  This is based on the assumption that the term, v'anveihu is compounded of the two Hebrew words ani (I) and hu (he).  The Rav explains that humanity's inability to truly cleave to God left us with the option of imitatio Dei, imitating God.  Let's ignore Rabbi Soloveitchik's assertion that this imitation is an admission of failure to cleave to God.  The Rav asserts that emulating God leads to 'absolute surrender to God and the exaltation of the free spirit.' He further claims, 'It reconciles the two contradictory positions:  divine decree with free individual creativity, the yoke of compulsion with spontaneity, reverence for the revelational command with the glorious vision of absolute free will, the revelational experience and the experience of freedom.' 

            When my goal is to imitate God, I'm less concerned with the rationality of any specific mitzvah or task.  In the big picture, I want to be like God, and that often means doing things I don't quite understand because God wants it.  Okay, this helps me when I've got a clear choice between something the Torah prohibits (like pork) and something the Torah demands (like returning a lost item).  However, much of life isn't that clear cut.  What do I do if two people have asked me to do them a favor, and there's only time to do one.  How do I choose?  When I shop, does this big picture guide me in my choices?  There are a lot decisions in life which aren't clear Torah issues.

            Let's go back to the original incident.  What did the average Jew see at the Sea which precipitated this declaration?  Frankly, I don't know.  But in the larger perspective of the events, God was doing two things.  First, God was fulfilling promises made to our ancestors, and God was also helping the oppressed against the oppressor, the suffering in the face of those who caused the suffering, the miserable against those who brought the misery. 

             It's not easy, but I think that most of us can get the idea.  If we truly want to emulate God we roll back our desires before moral and ethical imperatives.  We don't always need a Torah directive to do this.  We just need to remember that God wants righteousness, morality and humility.  I hope that we can accomplish this without constant miraculous reminders.