Beshalach: Who is like You?

Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders! (Shemot 15:11)

Who is like You among the mute,
Oh God Who is silent
when Your children suffer.

So help us be Your right hand:
give us of Your strength;
to cross the impasse

to forge a path through raging waves,
so those who seek,
might reach, unscathed, 
the farther shore.

In a commentary on Parashat Beshalach from 2005,, Dr Ismar Schorsch opens by citing from the autobiography of Amos Oz, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was published (in Hebrew) in 2002. “Amos Oz describes the elderly maidservant in the home of his maternal grandparents in Ukraine as being stone deaf. To make the point, he cites in Hebrew, a version of the Yiddish, bon mot deaf as ten walls (in Yiddish actually one wall is enough – toyb vie die vandt). And then he adds in parentheses that sometimes they said of her that “she is even more deaf than God himself in all his glory” (Hebrew edition, 182).”
Dr Schorsch is fascinated by this allusion to God, which he says, …”turns anguish into blasphemy.” He says that one might think that it originated in the Yiddish speaking world of Eastern Europe – “the folk wisdom of a beleaguered society writhing in the rift between theology and reality” but he notes that, actually, surprisingly, it derives from a saying formulated by the early rabbinic sages, “that expresses the candid sentiment of a religious elite. The view that God is all too often deaf to the cries of human suffering, finds its origin in our parashah on a daring word play in a well-known verse.”
After the Children of Israel have safely traversed the sea and seen their enemies submerged in it, Moses starts to sing a song, described by the Etz Hayim commentary of the JPS, as “celebrating the mighty acts of God as He intervenes in human affairs.” Dr Schorsch notes that two thirds of the way through, Moses interrupts his lyrical depiction of Pharaoh and his troops drowning in the turbulence, with a very familiar verse, “Mi chamochah ba-eilim Adonai, mi kamochah ne’edar bakodesh, nora tehillot osei feleh – Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials; who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders!” (Shemot 15:11). This verse is extremely familiar because it is recited three times daily, twice in the morning service and once in the evening.
However, Dr Schorsch suggests that familiarity might cover up a difficulty, and wonders “To whom exactly is Moses comparing God? Does the exultation reflect a pre-monotheistic stage in which the world still abounds with gods, though Israel worships only its own?” He contends that “the Jewish Publication Society translation of “celestials” fudges their identity, implying either other gods or the celestial retinue of the one and only God. In truth, the Hebrew word eilim is the plural of the noun for god, eil, though in Psalm 29:1 (sung on Saturday morning as we return the Torah to the ark), the phrase b’nei eilim seems to refer merely to the host of heaven.”
Dr Schorsch surveys the earlier exegeses: he notes that the Targum Onkelos cannot tolerate the idea that there may be other gods to whom Israel’s God could be compared: “There is none other than You. For You are the Lord Adonai. There is no one but You.” He says that Onkelos does not accept that the Torah could be relating to the multiple deities of contemporary polytheists, as divine entities.
However, he detects a different view in the oldest rabbinic commentary on Shemot, the Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, which dates from the same era as the Targum Onkelos. Here, several interpretations are tendered. One suggests that the verse is to be understood as the exultation of the gentile nations who heard of the miracle at the sea. Dr Schorsch explains, “In praising Israel’s God as unique, they naturally refer to their own deities as gods.” A second interpretation is that the word eilim refers to supernatural beings capable of performing miracles, in which case Moses would be depicting God as peerless among these. A further explanation could be an inference to Pharaoh who professed divinity.
However, Dr Schorsch is struck by one interpretation, which, he says, “does more than vitiate the implicit polytheism of the verse. It repunctuates the noun eilim to rebuke God’s intolerable silence in periods of persecution. Remember, the Torah scroll contains only consonants. The vowels are assigned by tradition, but omitted. Hence, without changing a consonant the word eilim could be read as eeleim, i.e., someone who is mute. Making it plural we get ilmim, meaning, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the mute?” The author of this interpretation elaborates – “beholding the humiliation of Your children yet keeping silent.” The barb is palpable. God’s patience is beyond human endurance. How much savagery is God prepared to tolerate? This interpretation changes Moses’s exultation into a lament. God’s past intervention into the course of human events provides no assurance for the future (Horovitz and Rabin eds., 142).”
He notes that in the Mechilta, this radical reading seems theoretical, but several hundred years later, it resurfaces in the Talmud in the midst of a lengthy discourse on the reasons for and the consequences of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. We learn that the Roman general, Titus, who oversees the siege of Jerusalem desecrates the Temple as well as burning it. He enters the Holy of Holies with a prostitute on his arm, removes the Torah scroll from its ark, unrolls it on the floor and has sex with his consort upon it. Dr Schorsch says, “God’s inaction shook faith to the core. Two verses capture the sense of betrayal and outrage. The first from Psalm 89:9, “O Lord, God of hosts, who is mighty like You, O’ Lord?” That is, reading against the grain, who could match Your self-control, to witness such sacrilege without erupting in righteous indignation? The second is our verse from Exodus 15:11, “Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials?” That is, who is like You among the mute ones? The second proof text is preferable, because derived from the Torah, it bears a higher order of sanctity. Though left unexplained, its import is bitterly clear. To be long-suffering can often manifest itself as callous indifference (B.T. Gittin 56b).”

In an article from 2008 (in Hebrew), Dr Penina Meizlish recounts the history of Rabbi Shem Klingberg, the rabbi of Zaloshitz in Poland. When Krakow was overrun by the Germans, Rabbi Klingberg was on the list of wanted rabbis – part of Nazi policy to try to destroy the spiritual leadership. He managed to escape and live in hiding in a nearby town for about two years. There, he studied, taught and encouraged those around him. In 1941, he was forced to enter the Ghetto, at which time he ceased singing Sabbath Table songs. Paraphrasing the Midrash (Bavli, Megilla 10B and Sanhedrin 39A) he said: “The people of Israel are drowning in the sea and you sing?” The Midrash tells of the ministering angels, who sought to sing before God when they saw the Egyptians drowning, but God stopped them, saying, “My creatures are drowning and you are singing before Me!” (and in Shemot Rabbah 80 23 on the same theme God says, “My legions are suffering and you are singing to Me”). Dr Meizlish notes that this episode is related in the book “Be’Ohalei Shem – In the Tents of Shem” comprising those of Rabbi Klingberg’s writings that survived the Holocaust, and published posthumously by his son. In it, Rabbi Klingberg addresses this issue in a few sentences, which Dr Maizlish believes merely scratch the surface of his thoughts on the subject of God’s reaction (or seeming lack thereof) when His creatures are suffering. She briefly summarises, starting with the quotation above from the Mechilta (Beshalach 80 8), “Who is like you among the mute, O God, Who is like You, Who hears (or sees) the affront to His children, and is silent”. And here the silent One is God. But in the Midrash of the Lekach Tov we find, “The silent ones are [the people of] Israel in exile, who are afflicted and do not respond, and the Holy-One-Blessed-be-He sees their suffering and is silent.” In the wake of the pogroms in Wurzburg, Germany, in the Second Crusade in 1146, the paytan (liturgical composer) Yitzchak ben Shalom composed the lament that opens with the words “Who is like You among the mute, Who holds back and is silent towards the tormentors; our enemies are many and rise up.” This lament appears in the SiddurKeminhag Polin – Of the Polish Tradition” and is recited on the first Shabbat after Pesach, which is close to the day on which the Egyptians were drowned and the Song of the Sea was chanted. Dr Maizlish assumes that Rabbi Klingberg was very familiar with these Midrashim as well as this particular prayerbook and the liturgy found in it. He was murdered in the Pleschov camp on the outskirts of Krakow in April 1943. Dr Meizlish says, “Commenting on Psalms 73:17: “Until I entered the sanctuary of God, then I understood their end”, he said: “When the Messiah comes we will understand the secret of the divine conduct of these times, the secret of the murders and the slaughter”. He was certain that there was an explanation for the Holocaust which had fallen upon Israel, but that human experience until now was completely unable to deal with it and only in the days of the Messiah, when a different cosmic order will prevail, will it be understood. His son added “He did not say more than this and refused to discuss the situation, taking care not to express any hint of doubt concerning the decree of Heaven and accepting everything with love.” ”

Dr Schorsch asserts that “the interchangeability of eilim and ilmim, of celestials and those who neither hear nor speak, became the currency of protest and lament. In the Hebrew elegies composed in Ashkenazi after the First and Second Crusades and recited in the synagogue, the accusatory query resurfaces. Indeed, these poems are fraught with many other expressions of doubt and dismay. When history challenged faith, Judaism sanctioned calling God to account. A genuine covenant needs to be observed by both partners. To dispute with God is a sign of a living relationship. The incidental bon mot cited by Amos Oz is testimony to the degree to which history has imprinted itself into the daily fabric of Jewish life.” Dr Schorsch concludes, “But when God falls silent, we must do more than dispute and decry. We must fill the void.”
Dr Schorsch closes by appending a beautiful Yiddish poem entitled “Help” by the young Abraham Joshua Heschel, which, he says, foreshadows so much of Rabbi Heschel’s later life:

Set me at the head of all the dying
with a greeting, a message from You.
The desolate call to You, and You don’t come.
So send me, and any others You might choose.
I cannot curse as justly as did Jeremiah.
People are poor, weak; and it seems to me
that their guilt is Yours;
their sins, Your crimes.
You are meant to help here, Oh God!
But You are silent, while needs shriek.
So help me to help! I’ll fulfill Your duty,
pay Your debts.
“The Ineffable Name of God,” trans. by Morton M. Leifman,
Continuum: 2005, 33



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