Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
n the past three columns, we outlined specific qualities that our Forefathers possessed; qualities that we can put to use in our own lives. In this week’s column, we will describe two additional such qualities, drawing upon two analyses of a text in this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16).
This text is near the beginning of the “Song of the Sea,” the triumphant hymn of Moses and the Sons of Israel after miraculously experiencing the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Yam Suf. There, we escaped our pursuers and witnessed enemy’s descent into the depths of the sea.
The passage reads:
“…They said: I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and might;
He has become my salvation.
This is my God, and I will glorify Him;
The God of my father, and I will exalt Him.”
Let us now examine how two commentators interpret our text. I begin with a passage in the posthumously published essays of a Holocaust victim, Rabbi Abraham Grodzinski, who was the moral guide for the hundreds of students of the Slobodka Yeshiva during the years just prior to the Holocaust.
In this essay, Rabbi Grodzinki points out the connection between the phrase “horse and driver He has hurled into the sea,” a phrase which graphically describes the bitter end toward which evildoers are destined, and the phrases “This is my God… the God of my father.” He writes, “This song about the punishment of Egypt is an expression of the hatred one must bear, not to those who perpetrate evil, but rather to evil itself.”
He goes on to say that moral perfection must be prefaced by the recognition that there is indeed evil in the world and that one must disdain that evil. Only then can one begin to transform evil, to correct evil, and to appreciate the Almighty fully. The pious person is not naïve but recognizes the darkness that resides in the world. Without that recognition, we cannot achieve the “status of our forefathers,” who knew evil and combated it, each in his own way. And so must we.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, who died decades before the Holocaust but was also a moral guide for many yeshiva students, has a different take upon this text. He was known fondly by his students as the Alter, the “Old Man,” of Kelm. He juxtaposes the phrase “He has become my salvation, my yeshuah” with the phrases “This is my God… The God of my father”.
The Alter suggests that just as the Lord is our salvation, so too can we “save” Him! You may ask, “How can one ‘save’ the Almighty?” To answer this question, the Alter relates the story of Shimon ben Shetach, as it is told in the Jerusalem Talmud.
Shimon ben Shetach was a scholar who was once quite poor. His disciples purchased him a donkey to enable him to travel. They obtained the donkey from an Ishmaelite, an Arab. When Shimon ben Shetach was about to mount the donkey, he spotted a tiny object in the saddle. He soon realized that the object was a large diamond. He asked the disciples for the identity of the original owner in order to return to the diamond to him. The disciples objected,\ and argued that the diamond was his to keep.
Shimon ben Shetach famously responded, “I purchased a donkey. I did not purchase a diamond.”
The Ishmaelite was so impressed by the fact that Shimon ben Shetach returned the diamond that he exclaimed, “Blessed is the God of Shimon ben Shetach.”
The Alter offers the story as but one example of a person’s ability to “save God;” that is, to bring glory to His name. “Thus,” concludes the Alter, “The Almighty brought us salvation, and we too can bring ‘salvation’ to Him.”
To review, in this week’s Torah portion, two early twentieth century spiritual guides brought two additional characteristics of the “redeemed” individual to our attention.
Rabbi Grodzinski taught that the “redeemed” individual does not ignore the prevalence of evil in the world but disdains it and confronts it wisely and successfully.
And Rabbi Ziv, the Alter, gifted us with the insight that our relationship with the Almighty can be reciprocal. Yes, He is our Savior. But we can reciprocate His salvation by bringing honor to His name by acting ethically and honestly, even in the face of temptation.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president, emeritus of the Orthodox Union.