Thursday, February 09, 2006

Beshalah (Midrash)

“… Let them go forward”

One of the most dramatic moments in the description of the Exodus is the moment when the Israelites are at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian charioteers bearing down on them, steep mountains on either side, and the billowy sea before them. At this moment the petrified Israelites cry out to God and complain to Moses, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?! Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone and let us serve the Egyptians?! Aren’t their enough graves there, that you had to take us here!” At that moment, God addresses Moses, who has been crying out to Him in prayer, and says “Why do you cry to me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them go forward” [Exod 14:15].

The conventional interpretation is that this is a call to human action and initiative. And indeed, at that moment, says one of the familiar midrashim, Nahshon son of Aminadav (Aharon’s brother-in-law and later chief of the tribe of Judah,) jumped into the water—and only after he had taken that daring step did the waters part. The figure of Nahshon has in fact been taken to heart by Zionists and other advocates of Jewish activism; one of the elite units of the IDF is known as “Nahshonim”; etc. Given that, it is perhaps surprising that a series of midrashim on this verse give a totally different view on this verse, celebrating the Jews as a prayerful people. Thus, Exodus Rabbah 21.1:

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me?’” {Exod 14:15]. It is written there: “They cry out and the Lord hears” [Ps 34:18]. Isaac left two inheritances to his two sons: to Jacob he gave the voice, as is said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob” [Gen 27:22], and to Esau he gave the hands, as is said, “and the hands are the hands of Esau” [ibid.].

Esau was proud of his inheritance, as is said, “and Edom said to him, ‘Do not pass by through me, lest I come out to meet you with the sword’” [Num 20:18]. And Jacob was proud of his heritage, as is said, “and we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers” [Deut 26:7].

Here we find the classic dichotomy between the Jew and the rest of the world: the Gentiles (symbolized by Esau) are addicted to violence, while the gentle, passive Jews are characterized by their voices, uplifted in prayer or, as we shall see later, in Torah.

In the future, the two of then shall take their reward. Esau shall take his reward, as is said, “For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens, let it descend [for judgment] upon Edom” [Isa 34:5]. And Jacob takes his reward, as is said, “the voice of joy, the voice of gladness” [Jer 33:11]. Therefore it is written: “They cry out and the Lord hears.” Because the Israelites cried out at the Sea, as is said, “and the Israelites cried out to the Lord” [Exod 14:10}, the Holy One blessed be He heard their prayer and said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to me?”—I have already heard their [or: ‘your’] cry—“Speak to the Israelites and let them go forward.”

Here, Esau’s love for the sword is seen as his downfall, which will ultimately be turned against him, while Israel will enjoy the restoration of the voices expressing the ordinary joys of a people dwelling in peace on their own soil, symbolized by the celebration of weddings (see the context of the verse in Jeremiah). God’s answer to Moses, “Let them go forward,” does not deny the importance of prayer, but simply informs him that it has already been answered.

What does it mean to speak of prayer as the characteristic “occupation” of Israel, of the Jews as a people with a unique facility for prayer, and not for war-making? However understood, this approach certainly clashes with the main themes of the last century in Jewish history: the Holocaust as a kind of culmination of the perils of Galut passivity, and Zionism and the State of Israel as among other things a revival of Jewish activism and military power. Israel’s impressive armed power, while a necessity of its political situation, is also a palpable symbol of the 180-degree change in the Jews’ situation in the world. There are those who would say that there is an element of psychological over-compensation in the modern Jew’s celebration of power, of the model of the “Tough Jew” (as in Paul Breines’ book of that title), particularly in the present situation, with all of its moral ambiguities, and with one of our more notorious and single-minded ex-generals at the helm. On the other hand, certain facets of the popular return to religion, and to shtetl-like models of Jewishness, may represent a swing of the pendulum to the other extreme.

Finding the golden mean in these matters is exceedingly difficult. There is much written in Hasidic literature about the dialectic between hishtadlut (“worldly effort” or “initiative”) and bitahon (“faith,” “trust in God”), but it is discussed there mostly in terms of the life of the individual. In the life of a nation, knowing when to use which aspect, when to forebear and not to use ones maximum strength, is far more problematic.

“The Righteous [man] decrees and the Holy One blessed be He fulfills carries it out”

The next section in this chapter of midrash continues the same theme. Exod. Rab. 21.2:

Another thing: “Why do you cry out to me?” It is written there: “You decree a word and it is established for you” [Job 22:28]. Said R. Levi: Just as the Holy One blessed be He commanded Moses and speak with him, so did Moses command the Holy One blessed be He, so to speak, as the sons of Joseph said to him: “My master commanded the Lord… and my master was commanded by the Lord” [Num 36:2]

The verse from Job, taken from Eliphaz’s third speech to Job, states that the man who is truly at harmony with God (unlike the suffering Job, who must have done something wrong!) will enjoy all good things: his prayers will be answered, he will enjoy worldly blessings, and he need but say the word, and God will carry it out, “and He will shine light on your path.” The midrash reinforces this idea with a verse from the end of the Book of Numbers, in which, for intricate syntactic reasons, one half of a verse stating that Moses was commanded certain things by God (relating to the distribution of land among the tribes and the problem of Zelophehad’s daughters) sound as though Moses issued orders to God Himself! Such out-of-context readings may be called “midrashic license.”

And just as the Holy One blessed be He calls to Moses and speaks with him, so did Moses call to the Holy One blessed be He and speak to him, as is said, “And the Lord speak to Moses,” and it is written, “And Moses speak to the Lord: May the Lord, master of all spirits, appoint [a man over the flock]“ [Num 27:15-16].

Similarly, the Torah records that Moses initiated conversation with God on several occasions—perhaps not as theologically daring as the idea of him giving orders to the Divine, but nevertheless not a self-evident idea either.

See how masterful he was, yet when he saw Pharaoh pursuing the Israelites he cried out, as is said: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me?’” He said to him: Why are you pained?!

Said R. Yehoshua: This may be compared to an intimate of the king, who had a certain problem, and came to cry out before the king. The king said to him: why do you cry out? Decree and I will do it. Thus the Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: “why do you cry out to me?” Speak and I will do it.

The image conveyed here is one of great intimacy between Moses and God (and by extension between the Jewish people generally and God?): that there is no need to even cry out with anxious in prayer, even at times of trouble; you merely need to ask and it shall be yours. The image here is of God as a kindly, indulgent father, perhaps of an only daughter (a favorite image of the midrash), or of a thoroughly smitten lover.

“Before they call out you answer”

Another thing. “Why do you cry out to me?” It is written there: “And even before they call out I shall answer” [Isa 65:24]. Twice it says in this verse, “and I shall… and I shall” (va-ani). Moses said: “See now that I, I am He” [Deut 32:39]. Rather, whoever does the will of the Omnipresent and directs his heart in prayer, I hear him both in this world and in the world to come. As is said, “and before they call I shall answer”—in this world; and in the future to come, “they yet speak and I will hearken” [ibid.].

The third midrash in this series, Exodus Rabbah 21.3, speaks of the prescient speed with which God answers prayer—even before it is uttered. The verse from Isaiah used as proof-text is familiar from its use in Anenu, the special addition to the Amidah recited at Minha of public fast days. The early pages of Ta’anit contain a series of stories of pious men, including Rabbi Akiva, who led public prayer on occasions of drought, and were so saintly and beloved to God that they had to but open their mouth in the words Mashiv ha-Ruah (“who turns the wind”) and the winds started to blow, bringing heavy rainclouds, and Morid ha-Geshem (“who brings down the rain”) and rain started to fall.

And what do they speak? Each one stands up and articulates his learning; and He, as it were, sits and articulates it with them. As is said: “Then those who fear the Lord spoke together each one with his fellow [and the Lord hearkened and heard…]” [Malachi 3:16]. And it is written, ”And your eyes shall see your teacher” [Isa 30:20]. And it is said, “and all your sons shall be taught by the Lord” [Isa 54:13]. Therefore the Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: If so, why do you cry out to me? “even before they call out I shall answer.”

Here the idea is given a new twist. The words spoken by the righteous are not words of prayer, but words of Torah study—and God is shown as if sitting with them in the Bet Midrash, participating in the “talking in learning.” Here, the familiar idea of God as Giver of Torah is expressed, not in the overwhelming one-time scene of the epiphany at Sinai, as something that happened long ago, but in the intimate, homely scene of God sitting in the Study House, as teacher or maybe even as hevrusa. The Rav was very fond of this image, referring to the times fixed for studying Torah as a “rendezvous with the Shekhinah.” The verses cited suggest this idea aptly. The verse from Isaiah, often used today about seeing the image of ones human teacher (or even a photograph of him), refers in its original context to the Almighty.

Said Eleazar ben Pedat: A man of flesh and blood—if he hears the words of a person, he can perform his judgment, but if he has not heard it he cannot direct his judgment. But the Holy One blessed be He is not so: before a person speaks He already knows what is in his heart. As Solomon said, “Know the God of your father and serve him… and all the impulse of his thoughts He comprehends” [1 Chr 28:9]. Before they have been formed [yezarah; a word-play on yetzer, “impulse”], He knows the thought within man’s heart.

For you find that seven generations before Nebuchadnezzar was born, Isaiah prophesied and explained what he would think in his heart. As is said: “and you said in your heart, I will ascend to the heavens” [Isa 14:13]. And if seven generations earlier the Holy One blessed be He saw what he would think in the future, how much more so regarding the righteous, that on that very same day, He knows what he shall think? Therefore it is written: “and before they call out I shall answer.” Therefore it says: “Why do you cry out to me?”

The theological problem regarding prayer that most often troubles modern people concerns whether prayer is answered at all, the bad things that happen to good – and even worshipful – people, etc. Here, the exact opposite problem is raised: is prayer at all necessary? If God is omniscient, He knows your thoughts and needs anyway, even before you pray, as witnessed by the case of Nebuchadnezzar (whose prayers were of course not answered, but whose arrogant and wicked thoughts were known to God and announced by His prophet over a century before his birth). The midrash gives no answer, but simple relates the things to illustrate God’s power, and his compassion to the righteous.


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