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November 29, 2014 / 7 Kislev, 5775
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Divine Intervention Motivates Religious Inspiration; After Three Days How Much Remains?

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Until the drowning of the Egyptian army at the Yam Suf, Hashem’s taking of Bnei Yisrael out of slavery was incomplete. All the miracles and plagues would have accomplished little if the Egyptian forces would have recaptured the Jews and returned them to Egypt and a life of persecution. The Jews were not asked to fight for themselves, only to trust in Hashem’s deliverance.

The response was an outburst of song coming from the entire people, both male and female. Our sages have described the level of revelation of a handmaiden who was present at the event as greater than that of the prophet Yechezkel in his vision of the divine chariot. The parsha should have ended after Az Yashir. It doesn’t; this tells us that the aftermath of the Divine intervention and religious inspiration has great import.

Three days after singing Az Yashir, Bnei Yisrael faced a new crisis. The drinking water was bitter. They complained, questioning their leaving Egypt. Hashem, through Moshe, performs a miracle sweetening the water, but this time Bnei Yisrael are given mitzvot to perform. The guarantee that they will be protected from the illnesses that Hashem has inflicted on the Egyptians is contingent on them keeping commandments.

When the manna was given daily to sustain them in their travels, it came with restrictions and conditions. The first mention of the prohibitions of Shabbat is in the context of the manna. Hashem provided for Bnei Yisrael’s needs but they had to take some responsibility as well.

The battle against Amalek, which concludes the parsha, stands in sharp contrast to the parting of the sea. Moshe is commanded to form an army to fight the war. The role of Hashem has not disappeared, but it is altered. Success in the battle depends on the uplifted hands of Moshe, which the mishna in Rosh Hashana (Talmud Bavli 29A) explains symbolizes looking toward heaven and commitment to Hashem. Yet the army still has to actually fight the war.

The second half of the parsha focuses on two interrelated themes. Inspiration, particularly when it is a response to a specific event, cannot by itself be maintained. Bnei Yisrael had lived their entire lives as an oppressed minority in Egypt and that collective memory was not erased by the splitting of the sea, no matter how miraculous. The immediate impact was enormous but it only took three days to fade. For change to become permanent it has to become internalized through new behaviors. Mitzvot have to be observed regularly. Hashem saved the Jewish people, but they still needed to transform themselves. A free person is one who takes on responsibilities and obligations and lives with the consequences of his or her behavior.

Slaves are unable to fight their own battles. They lack a sense of themselves as independent entities.

Hashem fought the Jews’ war against the Egyptians, but once they began to act as free people they had to fight their enemies. That does not mean that Hashem has disappeared from history; it signifies a more complex interaction between human initiative and Divine protection.

These two themes are fundamental to Judaism. Inspiration is invaluable, but for it to become permanently transformative it must lead to an ongoing change of behavior. The essence of Judaism is a commitment to a life of observance. Religious significance is given to the most mundane of behaviors. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik in his seminal essay “Halakhic Man” talks about sanctifying this world rather than escaping from it.

Bnei Yisrael saw the infinite power of the Almighty and were inspired to express their appreciation of being saved but they were not yet partners in sanctifying this world.

Wars, causing death and destruction, are an ugly manifestation of human power. Yet for the Jews to function in this world they had to be prepared to fight against the evil in it, including through actual combat, even if a risk existed that they would overestimate the role of military might – a risk which the Torah points out.

What is being asked of us is demanding and complex. We must be consistently committed, though moments of clear Divine intervention are rare. Moments of inspiration have to be channeled into patterns of religious behavior. Being part of this world means we have to decide when to fight wars and when to make peace. After the era of prophets passed we have faith in Divine Providence but cannot be perfectly sure of how to interpret events. No longer slaves, the Jewish people face the burden and challenges of life in this world coupled with the opportunity to transform through the commandments given to us by Hashem.

About the Author: Rabbi Yosef Blau is mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva University and an advocate for survivors of abuse.


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2 Responses to “Divine Intervention Motivates Religious Inspiration; After Three Days How Much Remains?”

  1. The idea that the divine punishes people or allows terrible things to befall them because they don't observe commandments seems to me so out of touch with the reality of everyday life. Down through history, the Jewish people have been some of the most committed to their faith of any peoples, which is why they have kept an identity. Yet they have suffered terribly. I mean, can any of us really believe that the pogroms of the past, or the horror of the Holocaust, were because of a lack of Jewish commitment? If so, what a cruel monster people worship. And then I think of all the non-observant Jews who live in peace and prosperity in safer parts of the world such as much of America. Are they merely waiting for the other shoe to drop? Or is there in fact no shoe, because the divine doesn't drop shoes? I prefer the view of the divine in Life of Pi, whereby everything in the world–the whole of nature–is all part of the divine. There is no punishment, no inflicting of horror. Humans do these things, not the divine. In which case being observant or not becomes a matter of choice and enjoyment of tradition and the connection it fosters, not a means of avoiding "getting it in the neck." Surely Judaism is able to rise above the punitive ideas of the divine held by the likes of the deceased Falwell or still living Pat Robertson, who blamed 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina (which I went through) on divine punishment–somehow ignoring the fact that, if the divine did it, it missed that cesspool of wickedness known as Bourbon Street and instead clobbered churches and temples! A bad shot? No, a bad idea.

  2. Well said. It's sad that as bad things happen to people, you have these false teachers going around telling others that it was because of sin in their lives. It's bad enough to pretend to be G-d or to be arrogant enough to think you know His will, but to pile it on when people are already devastated is just being a jerk. Guys like Falwell, Robertson, and Fred Phelps are just as bad as false prophets if not worse. And it's refreshing to see men like the Rabbi Blau who, despite tons of education, still have the humility to say that they don't know everything and the decency to just say "sometimes bad stuff happens to good people" without sticking it to anybody.

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