Traditionally, Jews refer to this Shabbat, in which we read the Parshat Beshalach, as Shabbat Shira (Shabbat of the Song). “The Song” refers to the Song of the Sea, Az Yashir (Exodus 15:1-19). The newly freed Israelites sang this song in praise to G-d after crossing the Sea of Reeds safely; we Jews consider the song as a statement of faith. This Shabbat, the Torah reader will chant special cantillations when reciting the relevant verses. We incorporate these verses every morning in our prayers.
In verse 3, the Jews proclaim, “The Lord is a man of war, the Lord is His name.” Struck by the superfluity of the second clause, Rashi (1040-1105) offers two explanations for the thought the Children of Israel expressed. First, he translates the second half of the verse as, “G-d deploys His name.” When G-d fights His enemies, He does so not with weapons, but with the power of His name. Second, Rashi translates the passage as, “the Merciful G-d is His name.” When G-d fights His enemies with His vengeance, He retains His quality of mercy for everyone else. Either way, Moshe and the Children of Israel did not equate G-d the Warrior with G-d the Merciful, as the literal text suggests.
Rashi’s reading avoids the problem; confronting it teaches us a valuable lesson.
A similar paradox arose in the Torah reading of two weeks ago, Parshat Va’eira.
G-d and Moshe debate each other over Pharaoh’s new crackdown on the suffering Jews, after G-d had promised imminent emancipation.
The first verse of the parsha (Exodus 6:2) records that Elokim (G-d the Judge) told Moshe, “I am Hashem (G-d the Merciful).” Explaining this seeming discrepancy, the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissachar Dov of Belz (1854-1926), quotes Midrash Rabbah (6:3) in the name of Rabbi Judah. “Thus spoke Moshe: ‘When you [sent me to Pharaoh] You said that, [invoking] Your attribute of mercy, You will redeem the [Children of Israel]. Perhaps [by the time] I appeared [before the king] [You changed] to the attribute of justice.’ G-d [answered], ‘I stand in [the posture] of mercy.’”
The Belzer Rebbe elaborates. Of the 13 Divine Attributes in the Torah (Exodus 34:6), he says, two seem to overlap: Rachum (Merciful) and Chanun (Gracious). He explains that, in this context, merciful refers to compassion in the distant future, and gracious to compassion in the moment. He concluded, that in answering Moshe, G-d emphasized the long term. Moshe, with the limitations of a mortal, could not see G-d the Merciful in this situation. The Omniscient G-d enlightened Moshe, saying “Merciful I remain.”
As I understand the Belzer Rebbe’s comments, Moshe equated G-d’s justice with strict application of the law. The Jews had suffered in Egypt, as G-d had told Abraham they would (Genesis 15:13-16). G-d had applied His justice. Now, however, the time had come for G-d to fulfill the other half of the prophecy to Abraham — redemption — and G-d must apply His mercy. Indeed, G-d had indicated to Moshe that He stood ready finally to free the slaves. Instead of relenting, Pharaoh drove the slaves harder. Where did the attribute of mercy go?
G-d told Moshe, “Take the long view.” Slavery in Egypt, necessary for 400 years, lasted 210, as Rashi proves (Exodus 12:40). How could G-d punish the Egyptians prematurely? Mizrachi (1455-c.1526) comments that Pharaoh’s heightened cruelty exhausted G-d’s patience. Rav Aaron of Belz (1880-1957) writes that G-d showed the Jews Pharaoh’s true nature, lest they feel undeservedly loyal to him for their freedom. Divine justice in the moment constituted divine mercy in the big picture.
Having seen G-d’s miracles in Egypt, Moshe and the Children of Israel grasped the message in Va’eira. G-d’s toughness with us stems from mercy, just as His vengeance against our enemies comes from compassion for us.
Nachum Ish Gamzu said, “This [tragedy], too, happened for the good.” The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) explains that unlike Rabbi Akiva, who believed bad things came out well eventually, Nachum Ish Gamzu held that the bad event itself constitutes mercy. So too must we, even if we cannot see it before our eyes.
By Joshua Z. Rokach
Joshua Zev Rokach is gabbai of the Nusach Sefard minyan at Young Israel Shomrai Emunah (YISE) in Kemp Mill, Maryland. It meets for all minyanim on Shabbat and Yomim Tovim in the upstairs small beit midrash in the new wing at YISE.