Parashat Beshalah 5780

A D’var Torah for Parashat Beshalah
By Rabbi Len Levin

This week’s joyful song at the crossing of the Sea is ensconced in the daily liturgy, morning and evening: “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!” (Exod. 15:11) Thus the liturgy utters three ringing declarations about God: God creates, God reveals Torah in love, God redeems.

A naïve understanding would have it that God is active and we are passive in these three actions. But a more sophisticated approach asks: Does God act unilaterally? Can anything happen in human history without human participation and cooperation?

Two weeks ago, God promised: Ve-hotzeiti etkhem—“I will bring you out” (Exod. 6:6). In his liturgical poem Kehosha’ta Elim accompanying the Sukkot lulav processional, the 7th-century poet Eleazar Kalir read this verse ve-hutzeiti itkhem—“I will be brought out with you.” Abraham Joshua Heschel similarly understood the enigmatic phrase Ani va-ho hoshi’a na as meaning: “I and You, may You deliver us both” (Heschel, Heavenly Torah, 110–11).

The longing for redemption is a major theme in Jewish historical experience. In Moses’s day, the people of Israel were enslaved and yearned for the liberation of the Exodus. In the time of the Judges—Deborah, Gideon, and Samson—the people were subjugated to neighboring powers and longed for independence. In the time of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, they were in exile in Babylonia and longed for the first return. From the defeat of Bar Kokhba through the Crusades and pogroms, Jews longed for the second return to Zion, which came about after the tragedy of the Holocaust with the establishment of the State of Israel.

Not only Jews have longed for redemption in history. In 1776, the colonists of America declared a new nation guaranteeing its citizens the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In the nineteenth century, northern Abolitionists and southern black slaves united in invoking the narrative of the Exodus to inspire a new liberation and end to slavery. In the 1940s those oppressed by Fascism throughout Europe united to liberate themselves from the newest, cruelest modern tyranny.

The rabbis expressed the idea of human participation in redemption through a story. As the Israelites were arguing whether it was feasible to move forward in the face of the watery barrier before them, Nahshon took action and jumped into the sea. This precipitated a crisis, whereupon Moses at God’s command took his rod and struck the sea, bringing about its division, and the Israelites walked through. (Mekhilta on Exodus 14.22)

Jewish experience attests deeply that the world is unredeemed. The Talmud tells of a rabbi who on entering a ruin to pray heard a divine voice lamenting, “Woe to the children, due to whose sins I destroyed My house, burned My Temple, and exiled them among the nations,” and was told that the lament reverberates three times every day (corresponding to the times of prayer—see Berakhot 3a). How striking, that God and humans are united in lamenting the unredeemedness of the world, and in praying for redemption to come!

In the early twentieth century, traditional Jews and Zionists debated whether the redemption was supposed to come by divine action or human action. The Zionists had the better of the argument; without human action, there would be no State of Israel. But to religious Zionists like Rabbi Abraham Kook, this was a false dichotomy. In the long view, maybe it is through our actions that God works in the world. Twice the Talmud says that humans are partners with God in the act of creation—when they perform justice, and when they inaugurate the Sabbath as a memorial of creation. (Talmud Shabbat 10a, Shabbat 119b). It would be equally true to say that for redemption to occur, humans must be partners with God in the work of redemption.
Rabbi Len Levin is professor of Jewish philosophy at AJR and editor of Studies in Judaism and Pluralism.