Individual and Collective Formation of Nationhood

Beshallah By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jan 22, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

At the heart of Parashat Beshalah lies the triumphant poem, Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. Having successfully crossed the Reed Sea and witnessed the downfall of Pharaoh’s horsemen, Moses and the children of Israel burst out into an outpouring of praise for the God who freed them from the bonds of slavery. This biblical poem provides the historical transition from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule to God’s glorious kingship. In its biblical context, this song marks the emergence of a nation — from the mixed multitude that leaves Egypt to the people who encounter God at Sinai. As Everett Fox writes, the Song of the Sea “sets off the Egypt traditions from those of Sinai and the wilderness and brings to a spectacular close the saga of liberation” (Fox, The Five Books of Moses, 354). The song plays an important part in the formation of our nation. It is surprising then, that the text employs the use of the first person singular in its opening (Exodus 15:1-2):

I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and might;
God is become my salvation.
This is my God whom I will enshrine;
The God of my father, and I will exalt God.

I will sing… the Lord is my strength and might… my salvation… Why does the song begin in such a personal tone? Would not it have been more appropriate for the children of Israel to sing together, as a nation, to celebrate their new-found freedom?

I believe that the Song of the Sea underscores the role of the individual in the creation of the Israelite nation. Precisely at the moment of national birth, the Torah relates to the Israelites, not as an impersonal throng but rather as a nation of precious individuals—each leaving Egypt with a particular experience of slavery and a personal reaction to the miracles of redemption. While a nation is a collective, it is each individual’s experience which endows a nation with uniqueness and strength. Judaism places an emphasis on community, but it is always with a recognition of the responsibility of the individual to the community and to God. Each of us has the capacity to build as well as to destroy community, and within the context of the communities we belong to, each of us has the potential to sing our own particular song to God.

The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk offers a related insight. Quoting the Song of the Sea, the Kotzker Rebbe writes, “A Jew must first acknowledge: ‘This is my God.’ Only then will he choose to follow in the path of his ancestors, to exalt the God of his forbears.” The root of the word anvehu, often translated as ‘I will enshrine’ or ‘I will glorify God,’ is nun-vav-hey, the word “naveh“, suggesting a place where one lives or dwells. Anvehu, he argues, means that “I will make a place for God to dwell in me and close to me; for I will build an oasis and dwelling place for God.” Once each person creates a dwelling place for God in his or her soul, God’s Presence may come to rest among the collective.

Abraham Joshua Heschel’s commentary embraces these two explanations. Heschel identifies two sources of religious thinking that are given to us: memory (the collective experience of the Jewish people) and personal insight. Heschel turns to the Song of the Sea as a paradigm of these two expressions. “This is my God, and I will glorify Him; The God of my father and I will exalt God” (Exodus 15:2). “Out of his own insight,” Heschel relates, “a person must first arrive at the understanding: This is my God, and I will glorify Him, and subsequently he will attain the realization that He is the God of my father and I will exalt God” (Rothschild, Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel, 242). Access to the universal Jewish experience comes only through the rich particularity of our own personal experiences of God. Shirat HaYam challenges us to have our own understanding of the Jewish past, present, and future and to use that understanding on a path to God. When we make a place for God in our hearts we are not only nurturing our own spiritual lives — we are in fact building the essence of community. For a community whose members recognize this value is indeed a community worthy of a redemptive song.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.