Beshallach 5784 – God of now

Introduction before leyning Chapter 15 of Exodus

Today is Shabbat Shirah—the shabbat of song, because it’s the week when we read Shirat Hayam—the Song of the Sea, the story of when the Israelites escaped through the miraculously parted sea, while behind them, Pharoah, his army, and their horses drowned. Moses and Miriam led the Israelites in celebratory song, and they declared God’s kingship for the first time.

There are three elements in this parshah that are different from a normal parshah. First, the layout of the poem itself in the Torah scroll is unique. The gaps in the text perhaps illustrate the waves of the sea. Second, the Hebrew is some of the oldest in our Scriptures. For example, the poem itself doesn’t use ha—the prefix meaning ‘the’. The archaic Hebrew could be from the 13th century BCE, or be a 5th century BCE homage to that older style. And third, the leyning for some of this reading also uses special music. The Ashkenazi tradition seems to assign the normal trop to narration about things that have happened, and are now in the past, while it assigns a special tune to praising God, and connecting directly to God in the present moment.

This is my God

In today’s parshah reading, there is a subtle movement back and forth between present and past. In verse 2, we heard the words ‘Zeh eili v’anveihu’—”This is my God, and I will glorify Him”; or in another rabbinic, midrashic translation, “This is my God, and I will give Him a place to dwell.” Then, ‘Elohei avi va’arom’menhu’—”this is the God of my ancestor, and I will exalt Him”. Commentators have often pointed out that there is a God of our ancestors, as in “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”[1]. And there is the ever renewing, unfolding God of now that Moses met at the burning bush: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh—I will be what I will be.”[2]

If there is just one God, why do we so often say both “our God” and “God of our ancestors”? The Baal Shem Tov[3] suggested that it was because there are two types of people. One type has faith that’s strong because they walk the path trodden by their ancient ancestors. The second type finds faith through their own search. The first sort of believers have the advantage that they can’t be seduced into ‘unbelief’, but they risk blindly repeating the behaviours of their forebears, without any understanding, insight or growth. The strength of the second type comes from their own search, and love for God, but they can be seduced by wayward ideas. The Besht suggested that the strongest faith comes from relying both on one’s ancestors and on one’s own personal search.[4]

Beginning again, and again

The search for a new lease of chai—life—in Judaism, has happened many times: the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls around the beginning of the first millennium; the post-Temple rabbinic and Talmudic revolution; commentaries and codifications by Rashi[5], Maimonides[6], Nachmanides[7], Joseph Caro[8]; the mystics of Safed who gave us kabbalah and  Kabbalat Shabbat; the peasants’ revolution of 18th century Chasidism and the mussar movement; the Haskalah, and crystallisation of both Orthodoxy and the Reform movement in 19th century Germany; the 20th century’s Liberal Judaism, Conservative and Masorti movements, Jewish Feminism and the Kohenet movement, Reconstructionism, Jewish Renewal, Jewish mindfulness, and Modern Orthodox. What’s going on? Why do we keep doing this?

Religion and Religiosity

Martin Buber passionately warned us to maintain our ‘religiosity’[9]—what he called our creative, unconditioned, spiritual longing. But, “to be sure”, he wrote, “to manifest itself in a community […], to establish and maintain a community, indeed, to exist as a religion, religiosity needs forms; for a continuous religious community, perpetuated from generation to generation, is possible only where a common way of life is maintained.”[10] Buber wrestled with this tension, but I am convinced that he wanted religiosity—not dogged attachment to a particular movement’s prayerbook, practices or perspective—to take the lead. Buber wrote so eloquently, I’d like to quote a longer passage from his 1913 essay entitled ‘Religiosity’:

“Religion is the sum total of the customs and teachings articulated and formulated by the religiosity of a certain epoch in a people’s life; its prescriptions and dogmas are rigidly determined and handed down as unalterably binding to all future generations, without regard for their newly developed religiosity, which seeks new forms. Religion is true so long as it is creative; but it is creative only so long as religiosity, accepting the yoke of the laws and doctrines, is able (often without even noticing it) to imbue them with new and incandescent meaning, so that they will seem to have been revealed to every generation anew, revealed today, thus answering [people’s] very own needs, needs alien to their [parents and forebears]. But once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them or no longer wants to comply with them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue. Thus, religiosity is the creative, religion the organizing, principle. Religiosity starts anew with every young person, shaken to [their] very core by the mystery; religion wants to force [them] into a system stabilized for all time. Religiosity means activity—the elemental entering-into-relation with the absolute; religion means passivity—an acceptance of the handed-down […] Religion means preservation; religiosity, renewal.”

Buber advised us to trust less in the forms that a denomination matures into, and to stay close to the elemental, untamed spiritual and imaginal forces that can keep Judaism relevant, authentic and alive. Torah, Tanakh, Talmud and tradition connect us powerfully, lovingly, inspiringly, to the God and wisdom of our ancestors. But in the Torah blessings today, we heard ‘Baruch atah Adonai, notein ha-Torah’, ‘who gives us the Torah’—‘gives’, in the present tense. Our honourable tradition teaches us to not get stuck in our tradition, but rather to listen to Torah in such a way as to hear the God of now, and find and make new meaning.

Showing up

So here we are, beyond the Sea of Reeds, safely delivered from those who threatened us and died a terrible death—and, of course, many of their own innocents died too. … With our hearts bursting, we declare for the first time in history: Adonai yimloch l’olam va’ed!—“God, You are our everything!” As we stand on this new shore, right now, there is no Torah to guide us. Jewish tradition doesn’t exist yet. We face unfamiliar freedom, and unexpected responsibility. What next? What kind of people do we want to be? Who will be inside, and who outside, our circle of protection? How do we want to go forward? Here’s a final poem:

Without Tradition, there is no Judaism.
There is no Tradition without Torah, Tanakh and Talmud.
Ancient wisdom teaches, custom nurtures,
Forms hold and inform us.

Without renewal, Judaism lacks conscience.
Without conscience, there is no Judaism.
Forms can imprison, custom dull awareness.
Listening and presence transform us.

Without Tradition, we are nothing.
Without conscience, we are nothing.
Without you, Breath within the Breath,
Tradition and conscience are nothing.
Zeh eili—This is my God. You are my God. You form me.
Hineni—here I am.[11]


[1] Ex. 3:6</br /> [2] Ex. 3:14
[3] Ba’al Shem Tov (Besht) (1698-1760)
[4] Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Parshat Noach, #141, ‘Pillar of Prayer’. Besht (1699-1760)
[5] Rashi, Torah commentary (1040-1105)
[6] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Guide for the Perplexed (1138–1204)
[7] Nachmanides (1194-1270)
[8] Joseph Caro, Shulchan Aruch (1488-1575)
[9] ‘Renewal of Judaism’ (1910), ‘Religiosity’ (1913)
[10] ‘Religiosity’ (1913)
[11] For more on hineni, see