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In Melbourne Shabbat begins Fri 27 Oct 2017 07:30 PM and ends Sat 28 Oct 2017 08:31 PM
י"ז שבט ה' אלפים תשע"ג
Parshat Beshalach (Exodus Chapters 13:17 - end of Chapter 17) is called the Parasha of the Song, being that the Song of the Sea is recited as its centrepiece. It is rendered in a traditional chant that is said to be extremely ancient. Also, the Song of Deborah is sung during the Haftarah. Both of these poems have been studied intensely by biblical historians. They have been found to be completely authentic, dating to the times in which they purport to have occurred and linguistically preserved, based on their antiquated forms of language. Each poem was preserved exactly as it was first composed, standing witness to the events which gave rise to their words: "Who is like You, amongst all that is considered powerful, Hashem? Who is like You, most glorious of all that is considered sacred? You are awesome in praises, doing wonders."
As Jews, we read this whole salvation story every day as a part of the early morning service and make this statement as a central part of the morning and evening Shema (Artscroll, 94-97). We declare that God is the Rock of Israel who redeemed us then as an act for all time. The Maccabees took the acronym from the first four words to symbolise that anyone who was on the side of Hashem would be supported with victory from the source of all saving-God!
From this declaration, Mi Chamocha, may come a very mistaken notion that God will punish the bad guy in front of our very eyes in this world. This belief is taken from the fundamental part of this faith-formational story. The word "fear" and "see" have almost an identical Hebrew Root. Yud-Resh-Alef is the basis of Yirat Shamayim, fear of Heaven, meaning obedience to God on the basis that he will punish you for doing wrong (some day).
Resh-Alef-Heh is the basis of the verb to see. In the crucial part of the story when the Israelites have seen the dead Egyptians on the shores of the Sea of Reeds, the narrative just before the song records:
Israel (the people) saw (VaYar Yisrael) Egypt (the people) dead on the sea shore; Israel saw (VaYar Yisrael) the Mighty Hand of God which Hashem made known in Egypt; The people feared HaShem (VaYiru HaAm) and they believed in Hashem and Moshe, His servant (VayaAMiNu). The word believe is Emunah related to the word Amen. We respond
Amen to a blessing said by another person, a Bracha. Parenthetically, one does not say the word Amen to one's own blessing. A bystander hearing a blessing wants to be included, covered, counted in to the belief that God created and therefore controls the particular domain of activity which is highlighted in the Bracha.
There are three domains that God controls and which are reflected in famous blessings that we also say every day: Creation, Revelation and Redemption.
1) Creation - every time we bless food we are about to eat, we acknowledge that God created the essential elements that brought forth the food. In the morning, we thank God with the basic morning blessings (pages 18-21, Artscroll Siddur) for creating us and giving us the essential gifts we need to succeed in life. We thank God for the working of our bodies (Asher Yatzar, page 14/15 at the bottom) enabling us to process the food we eat and the air we breathe into a worthwhile existence. Finally, there is a Bracha thanking Hashem for our pure souls that can be fortified by love, knowledge and wisdom and be the conduit of the expressions of God's will to promote justice, truth, peace and the performance of acts of goodness (Elokai Neshama - page 18/19 top).
2) Revelation - In the morning service, we recite blessings for giving us the Torah (Birkot HaTorah - pages 16/17). These must be said once in the morning before learning anything. All knowledge comes from God. Any truth that is revealed to us in any way should be considered Divine truth and ultimately, it is Torah. Right before the central recitation of the Shema in the Morning Service, (Ahava Rabbah, page 88 bottom - page 90) we say a Bracha that encapsulates God's desire for us to be great people through the life-long learning of the laws that govern living a good life.
There, in that prayer, a famous line that encapsulates the single highest aspiration of any Jew is written: "Enlighten our eyes in Your Torah (teaching), cause our hearts to cling to the positive actions (Mitzvot) and unite our hearts to love and fear your name."
"Thus," continues the bracha, "we will not endure shame for all eternity." The bracha ends with God's promise of salvation and fame for us as a result of our enduring loyalty and perseverance to a life of truth.
This is the mature faith of Israel. We know that our lives will be fulfilling as long as we cling to our values. There will never be any shame for a person's life lived in dignity, holiness, honesty and love. The slavery is over once you understand that you are a servant of the Holy One, Blessed Be He. No one can really hurt you when you have His truth on your side. Ultimately, whoever is on the wrong side of this equation will be exposed and will not prosper. The Psalms repeat this over and over. Be calm during the storms of life for as long as you are innocent, no one can really shame you and furthermore, your salvation and your good name will be eternal!
At the stage at which the Israelites were saved originally, only in seeing WAS believing possible. The Israelites interpreted the sight of the dead Egyptians as complete proof of God's saving power. Going further, the people feared God's ability to work through history and change the destiny of any human being as a result of what they then saw/interpreted as the mighty hand of
God. The vulnerable, innocent people were saved. The danger/evil was swept away. But this is a very rudimentary version of the Jewish faith.
We have to carefully analyze the statement: "Who is like You amongst whom we consider powerful?" Since when does our consideration of who is powerful create the status of God as All Powerful? God told Elijah (I Kings
19:11-13) that His true essence is in the "still, small voice" and not in great public displays of His saving power. Thus, in a mature approach to religion, the belief in God's Redemption (domain #3) means that we cannot rely upon our eyes to perceive or prove God's existence, His justice or His Power. I hope we can be open to experiences of God's real power in our lives in nuanced, nearly imperceptible ways.
There is an important lesson that connects the salvation stories in the TaNaCh, near death-near miss stories and it is not about proving God's existence or His Divine Power. The story of Noah and the ark, the binding of Isaac, little Moses in the basket, are about one specific person that will be the saviour of the future. The world each of these characters is born into is a world that sorely needs them to be strong and true, to pursue right and good, to risk all and be all that they can be in order to redeem the entire world. It is said that no person is indispensible. These characters I listed lived at times when everyone else acted as if this were so. What can one person
We are soon to approach the holiday of Purim in which Mordechai and Esther saved the day against enormous odds. They didn't just stand by and let evil go unchallenged. Yet they weren't super heroes. They let God work through them. The good deeds that came to hand were done. Risks were taken with the knowledge that if they died trying, at least they had tried everything possible!
There is pressure on each of us to engage with our
surroundings and to respond to the challenges of our time as if we alone are left to fix the problem ourselves. These characters each in their time were completely indispensible. We should not think of ourselves in terms of being either dispensable or indispensible.
Rather, think of yourselves as dispensers, vessels of God's will, filled with
the compassion, responsibility and sense of purpose from our earthly parents and our Divine Parent, entrusted with the entire world to impact upon it in the greatest way possible. We cannot believe in humanity as it is; only as it should be with us on board being fully‑functioning champions of the good. In a sense, God places us in just the right position for the mission for which we were made. Then He presses the dispenser. The rest is up to us!
We must believe in God's promise of a future of infinite possibilities. We must honour ourselves, see and nurtureall that is divine in others and work together to find the cures,implant the hope and give of ourselves completely under God's sovereignty.