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Az Yashir: Human Song of Victory or Divine Song of Joy

Alumni and Students

by Rabbi David Horwitz, alumnus 1979, Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Rav Yitzchak Elchanan


I. Religious and Ontological Monotheism

When we think about monotheism, we can approach it in one of two ways. One can conceive of an exclusivity of worship, in which one would serve, love, fear and pray to only one God, yet would accept a belief that more than one God exists. Alternatively, one can believe in the existence of only one God, and believe that only He possesses unique Divine power. Analogously, philosophers and historians of religion, when discussing monotheism, distinguish between the two distinct concepts of religious monotheism (also called monolatry) and ontological monotheism. The second phrase denotes a state of being which is higher and more refined than the first. The belief of the religious monotheist who worships and prays to only one God while conceding the existence of other gods is not equal to that of the ontological monotheist, who proclaims the existence of one unique God. Judaism, of course, proclaims the doctrine of ontological monotheism, as illustrated by such verses as "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Echad" (Deut. 6:4). "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One."

In light of our belief, one verse in the Song of the Sea, Az Yashir, which appears in this week's parasha of Beshalach, presents us with severe difficulties. Ex. 15:11 states: "Mi Kamokha ba-elim Hashem, Mi Kamokha Nehedar ba-Kodesh." "Who is like Thee among the gods, O Lord, Who is like Thee, Majestic in Holiness." The word "kemo," of course, denotes a comparison, a concept which makes sense only when two items that actually exist are being compared. Prima facie, this verse seems to be invoking the doctrine of religious monotheism, but not that of ontological monotheism. Our God, Hashem, is a God greater than the Egyptian gods or the gods of any other nation, the verse seems to say. But Judaism believes in ontological monotheism! We believe that Hashem is the unique, universal God over all humanity, which makes any comparison meaningless and absurd!

I believe that it is this difficulty which impelled Chazal, in various passages in the Mekhilta, as well as many Rishonim (though, admittedly, not all), to reject any interpretation of this verse which allows a comparison between Hashem and other gods. As no other gods exist, such a comparison would be unnecessary and superfluous. Rather, many sources interpret the verse as a comparison between Hashem and other entities which exist in reality.

Rashi, for example, (ad loc.) interprets "elim" in its primordial sense of strength (ba-chazakim). The comparison becomes one that contrasts the unlimited power of Hashem, who can split the Yam Suf, and the finite, limited power of mortal kings such as Pharaoh. The Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 142), in this vein, writes: "Who is like Thee among those who call themselves gods? Pharaoh called himself a god... Sancherib called himself a god... Nebuchadnezar called himself a god...."

Another interpretation identifies "elim" with the noun "'ilemim"; those who are mute. Only Hashem has the self-control to remain silent when His beloved children of Israel are humiliated, and to wait until the appropriate time to punish those who abuse His treasured nation. The Talmud Bavli, in masekhet Gittin (56b), in the midst of the celebrated sugya of Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza, while describing the blasphemous acts of Titus, states: "In the school of Rabbi Ishmael it was taught: Who is like Thee among the gods (elim)? Who is like Thee among the mute ones (ilemim)."

Indeed, in Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (ibid.) we find the following passage: "...Who is like Thee among the silent ones, O Lord, who is like Thee, seeing the insult heaped upon Thy children, yet keeping silence, as it is said (Isaiah 42:14): 'I have long time held My peace, I have been still, and refrained Myself; now will I cry....'" Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 42).

On the other hand, R. Abraham ibn Ezra, and, most notably, the Ramban, follow a different track. They interpret the verse as a comparison between different existent Beings in the celestial realm: God and the angels. The Ramban (Commentary on the Torah, Exodus 15:11 [Chavel translation, p. 201]), writes: "Now it is true that the word elim is an expression of power and strength, but 'Who is like Thee 'ba-elim' is a reference to the angels who are called elim, the usage of the word being similar to that in the verse 'This is E-li (my God) and I will glorify Him' (Ex. 15:2), and the holy One, blessed be he, is called E-l Elyon (God the Most High; cf. Gen. 14:18) above all powers." According to the Ramban, the comparison is within the 'olamot ha-elyonim, the celestial world itself.

Still another opinion in the Mekhilta (ibid., pp. 141-42) states that the Jews and the nations of the world sang "Mi Kamokha" when they saw God split the Red Sea. They then denied the worth of other gods and proclaimed the glory of Hashem.

Is it possible to support a literal explanation, which would assert "ba-elim" actually refers to other gods?

It is curious that throughout this passage Moshe Rabbenu is conspicuously absent. Why would one assume that the Jewish people, as well as members of other nations of the world, would say "Mi Kamokha," but that Moshe Rabbenu himself would not?

Perhaps, the answer lies in the very distinction we began with between religious monotheism and ontological monotheism. The umot ha-olam and those Jews who had absorbed the Egyptian mindset, after the miracle of keri'at Yam Suf, were prepared to give up recognizing the power of avoda zara and begin worshipping only one God, Hashem. However, because this shift in loyalty was exclusively predicated upon the miracle, it did not engender a total conceptual shift. It did not entail the recognition that, in reality, there is only one, universal God. Indeed, we know that with chet ha-egel, some Jews backtracked from their faith. Moshe Rabbenu himself, however, (as well as those Israelites who had reached a more refined level of understanding), would have no need to compare the strength of Hashem with that of other gods. They were already at the level of realizing ein od mi-levado, the ontological uniqueness of God, and did not need to say Mi Kamokha.

On the other hand, according to the interpretation of the Ramban, it is entirely conceivable that Moshe Rabbenu himself said the verse of Mi Kamokha as well. Its focus, as we have explained, is the distinction between Hashem and the angels. The verse assumes God's uniqueness; it highlights the distinction between God and His celestial servants, the malakhei elyon.

II The Ethical Dimension to Ontological Monotheism

In my opinion, there is an ethical dimension to this distinction between monolatry and ontological monotheism, which I would like to connect with a well-known halakhic issue. The gemara (Arakhin 10b) explains that one does not say full Hallel each day of Pesach because, unlike Sukkot, the sacrifice on each day of the Pesach is the same. The Taz (490:3) quotes a midrash which provides a different reason. One may not recite Hallel, according to the Taz, because God objected: "Ma'asei yadai tove'im ba-yam, ve-atem omerim shira?" "My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you would recite song?"

The Beit Yosef (ibid.) cites the same idea in the name of the Shibolei ha-Leket ('Inyan Rosh Chodesh, sec. #174; ed. S. Buber, p. 69b) who quotes the midrash Harninu, parashat Sukka, as his source. Indeed, this midrash can be found in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (ed. S. Buber, p. 189a): "Why does Scripture give no [explicit] command to rejoice during Pesach? Because the Egyptians died during Pesach. And similarly do you find that although we read the [entire] Hallel on each of the seven days of Sukkot, on Pesach we read the entire Hallel only on the first day and the night preceding it. Why? Because of what Shwould quote: "Bi-nefol oivekha al tismach" - "Do not gloat at the fall of your enemy." (Proverbs 24:17).

This supplements the well-known gemara (Megilla 10b and Sanhedrin 39b): "The Holy One, Blessed be He, does not rejoice over the fall of the wicked."

The 19th century-commentator R. Ya'akov Ettlinger, (Arukh le-Ner), amplifies the statement in Sanhedrin by pointing out that, as Jews are commanded to follow in God's ways, (imitatio Dei; ve-halakhta bi-derakhav), Hashem's attitude must shape, and determine our own attitudes. The gemara (ad loc.) continues with the statement that when the angels wanted to sing at Yam Suf, Hashem did not allow them to do so. "In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song (of praise) before the Holy One, Blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: "My handiwork (the Egyptians) is drowning in the sea; would you recite song before me?"

The gemara concludes with the opinion of R. Yose b. Chanina, who says: "He (God Himself) does not rejoice, but he allows others to rejoice...." What is unclear, however, especially in light of the penetrating observation of the Arukh le-Ner cited above, is which premises of the earlier discussion are rejected at the conclusion of the sugya. Is any utilization of the view of the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana cited above precluded? The Maharsha, who interprets this conclusion as firmly distinguishing between the angels and ourselves, seems to support this conclusion. We Jews, according to this view, need not be concerned with "ma'asei yadai tove'im ba-yam." But this, absolutely, cannot be the position of the Taz (which is also cited, among other authorities, by the Mishna Berura; Orach Chayim 490:7). The Taz quotes le-halakha the phrase of "ma'asei yadai tove'im ba-yam" as the determining reason why we do not recite Hallel on the seventh day of Pesach! Apparently, he felt that this principle does impose limits upon the permissibility of shira. Can one create a theoretical system of categories which would define and demarcate these limits?

When one thanks God for delivering him for a tzara, be it personal or national, he can do it in one of two ways. He can thank Hashem in a spirit of vindictiveness, gleefully proclaiming "My God is stronger than yours!" Although it is good that he recognizes the hand of God in his deliverance and does not attribute his fortune to mikreh (chance), this attitude certainly is not the highest goal of shira. This stance vis-a-vis one's adversaries can be characterized as the ethical correlative of monolatry, the lower level of monotheism in the sense in which we defined it above. Alternatively, a person, a tribe or an entire country can praise Hashem for a victory from another perspective and a different vantage point. On this more refined level, one's thanks is not defined by the defeat of the enemy per se. This higher level can be termed the ethical correlative of ontological monotheism. As Jews, thanking Hashem for keri'at Yam Suf, such an approach would stress the fact that God's salvation allowed us as Jews the freedom to serve Him in purity and truth. In this vein, the Rambam, as is well-known, concludes his Mishneh Torah with the declaration that Chazal looked forward to the arrival of the Messiah for one reason: in order that the world be full of knowledge of God "as the waters cover the sea."

Ideally, if a shira is even perceived to be delivered in a spirit of vindictiveness, it should not be sung. Le-halakha, of course, we do say Az Yashir as part of our daily Pesukei de-Zimra; although the song is immediately concerned with the victory over Pharaoh and his troops, ultimately it focuses upon the glory of Hashem Himself; Hashem yimlokh le-olam va-ed.

According to the Ramban, as we have mentioned, Mi Kamokha is a praise of God within the celestial realms; it is indeed appropriate for all of us to praise Hashem in such a manner. The Taz's reason for not saying Hallel after the first day(s) of Pesach retains its validity as a reminder of the lower level of thankfulness, a spirit which we as Jews are commanded to transcend.

If we appropriate this ethical correlative of ontological monotheism in our dealings with others, we can approach our dealings with Jews who are unfortunately not yet observant, as well as our dealings with non-Jews, from a fresh perspective. We liberate ourselves from the trap of eternal competitiveness; for we are secure in our knowledge of truth. Moreover, we can now focus more precisely and directly, from a religious point of view, upon our avodat Hashem; both individually and communally. May it be Hashem's Will that we all grow ma'ala va-ma'ala in that goal.




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