“Bringing G-d Home”
(updated and revised from B’shalach 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, contains many historic and dramatic moments.

The narrative of parashat B’shalach describes the departure of the People of Israel from their enslavement in Egypt, as well as the miraculous splitting of the Red Sea. Also included in the parasha are the statutes and judgments given at Marah, the heavenly manna food, the well that followed the People of Israel in the wilderness and the dramatic war with Amalek.

Despite the multiple 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, the moment that the Israelites sang their song at the sea, the people’s souls attained the highest state of religious exaltation, their hearts became wellsprings overflowing with Torah, and the sounds of the people’s words were 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, וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֵאמֹר, 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 peon of praise to the Al-mighty who rescued the fleeing Israelites. The introductory words of the song (Exodus 15:2): עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת קָהּ, וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה, 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: זֶה אֵ־לִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ, אֱ־לֹקֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ, “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 all 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 personal 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, בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ וֵא־לֹקֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ, Blessed art You G-d, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, אֱ־לֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱ־לֹקֵי יִצְחָק וֵא־לֹקֵי יַעֲקב , 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 to be believers.

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 tospeak?” 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 would 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 of their parents’, grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ beliefs. 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 words of the Amidah: וֵא־לֹקֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ , the G-d of our fathers.

But, the opening text of the Amidah also speaks of אֱ־לֹקֵינוּ, our G-d?! Note that the text does not read אֱ־לֹקֵי אַבְרָהָם, יִצְחָק, וְיַעֲקב, 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 personally with the concept of G-d so that he could build a special relationship with G-d, in his own unique and personal manner. Similarly, the beliefs of Isaac and of Abraham were also the result of intense personal quests.

That’s exactly what is underscored in the verse that is cited in the Shira. The ancient Israelites sang out: אֱ־לֹקֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ, “The G-d of my father–I can exalt and raise Him up.” But, if we relate to G-d only as the G-d of my father, all we can do is put G-d on a pedestal and hold Him high.

However, if we relate to G-d as זֶה אֵ־לִי if G-d is my G-d–then וְאַנְוֵהוּ, I can exalt Him. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch states that the word, אַנְוֵהוּ, stems from the root word נָוָה , which means home. If G-d is truly my G-d, says Rabbi Hirsch, if I’ve built a truly personal and meaningful relationship with G-d through study and analysis, then I can actually 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 personal beliefs and personal relationships with G-d–so that we can indeed bring G-d home.

May you be blessed.

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the “Shira,” the song, namely the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central and essential role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

On Sunday night and Monday, January 16th and January 17th, we celebrate Tu b’Shevat, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, the New Year for trees. In Israel it symbolizes the beginning of Spring. On Tu b’Shevat it is customary for Jews to eat species of fruit that specifically grow in the land of Israel.