Shabbat candles: 4:51 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:51 (Ashkenaz);
Shabbat ends: 5:54 p.m.
“The Lord is my strength and song, and He is my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him” [Exodus 15:2].
Beshalach describes in prose (Exodus 14) and poetry (Exodus 15) the final and decisive victory of the Hebrew slaves over the Egyptians at the Red Sea (more correctly, the Reed Sea). But what was the precise significance of this victory of the God of Israel over the gods of Egypt?
Why does the Torah use the names of idolatrous shrines to describe where the Israelites were standing on the shore? We’re told that the Israelites “encamp before Pi Hahirot between Migdal and the sea in front of Ba’al Tzefon (the Master of the North)” [Ex. 14:2]. Then, the Israelites were near “Hirot” [Ex. 14:9].
Hirot is identified with the god Haurus, and the Master of the North was the last remaining Egyptian god [Rashi, Ex. 14:2]. Surely, it would have been sufficient to tell us that the Israelites were near the Reed Sea.
I would submit that Hirot is closely related to the Hebrew word herut, which means freedom; the Bible is hinting that at this historic and climatic moment, the Hebrews are poised theologically between the Egyptian idolatry of Baal Tzefon and their imminent freedom under the supreme God.
In Egypt, people lived in a mysterious, idolatrous world controlled by jealous and warring gods; every phenomenon was attributed to these gods before whom the individual was powerless, other than to offer bribes and gifts.
After crossing the Reed Sea, the Israelites started singing, “This is my God and ve’anvehu, I will glorify Him [Ex. 15:2]. This Hebrew word, often translated as “glorify,” is obscure. Targum Onkelos builds on the root word naveh, which means “house,” and so translates, “I shall build Him a Temple.” Rashi isolates the Hebrew root noi, which means “beauty”, and explains the word conveying the idea, “I shall speak of His beauty … I will praise Him to the world … pray to Him with words of praise.” The Talmud gives two other interpretations: “I will beautify His commandments before Him,” building on Rashi, but taking it to signify beautifying the ritual objects (the sukkah, tefillin, or a kiddush cup).
Abba Shaul, a Talmudic Sage, breaks down anve’hu into two words, “ani v’Hu, I and Him, I will strive to walk in His ways, to emulate His attributes.” Serving God doesn’t only mean building Him a Temple, or prayer, or beautiful ritual objects. Unlike idolatry, we do not make our God in our image, desirous of a fancy home, words of praise and ritual gifts.
We, created in His image, serve Him when we observe his commandments and adopt His attributes of freedom, morality and peace. We pray to God not only to praise but also to draw closer to Him, to be better enabled to adopt His loving kindness. We observe commandments using ritual objects and study His words not in order to please or propitiate Him but rather to observe His will, internalize His values and attempt to bring about His world vision. It is not what you say to God, or what you build or beautify for God, rather it is who you are, how you are, and how you act.
After all, we are created in God’s image and God wants us to utilize our freedom to choose to create and not destroy; to be His partners in perfecting an imperfect world [Isaiah 45:7]. God Himself is waiting for our actions and our initiatives to redeem humanity and realize the prophetic vision of the Messiah.
God wants us to act with courage and integrity. Hence, God chides Moses when he seems to tell the Israelites at the sea that God will do all the work. The best interpretation I know of “ve’anvehu” is given by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch: “This is my God and I must become His house,” I must be an expression of His will in every word I utter, in everything I do. Then truly ani v’Hu, I and He, will establish a true partnership dedicated to the perfection of the world.
The victory at the Reed Sea was a victory of freedom (herut) over subjugation, of a God who wanted a true and free partner in contrast to gods who only wanted to be slavishly praised and bribed. When we (the Israelites) act courageously for freedom, God is triumphant over enslavement and idolatry.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, is the chief rabbi of Efrat.