“That day, G-d saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians . . . The Israelites saw the great power G-d had displayed against the Egyptians, and the people were in awe of G-d. They believed in G-d and in his servant Moses. Moses and the Israelites then sang this song, saying . . .”
The Song at the Sea was one of the great epiphanies of history. The sages said that even the humblest of Jews saw at that moment what even the greatest of prophets was not privileged to see. For the first time they broke into collective song – a song we recite every day. There is a fascinating discussion among the sages as to how exactly they sang. On this, there were four opinions. Three appear in the tractate of Sotah:
Our rabbis taught: On that day Rabbi Akiva expounded: When the Israelites came up from the Red Sea, they wanted to sing a song. How did they sing it? Like an adult who reads the Hallel and they respond after him with the leading word. Moses said, I will sing to the Lord, and they responded, I will sing to the Lord. Moses said, For He has triumphed gloriously, and they responded, I will sing to the Lord.According to Rabbi Akiva, Moses sang the song phrase by phrase, and after each phrase the people responded, I will sing to the Lord – their way, as it were, of saying Amen to each line.
R. Eliezer son of R. Jose the Galilean said: It was like a child who reads the Hallel and they repeat after him all that he says. Moses said, I will sing to the Lord, and they responded, I will sing to the Lord. Moses said, For He has triumphed gloriously, and they responded, For He has triumphed gloriously.
R. Nehemiah said: It was like a schoolteacher who recites the Shema in the synagogue. He begins first and they respond after him. (Sotah 30b)
According to R. Eliezer son of R. Jose the Galilean, Moses recited the song phrase by phrase, and they repeated each phrase after he had said it.
According to Rabbi Nehemiah, Moses and the people sang the whole song together. Rashi explains that all the people were seized by divine inspiration and miraculously, the same words came into their minds at the same time.
There is a fourth view, found in the Mekhilta:
R. Eliezer ben Taddai said, Moses began and the Israelites repeated what he had said and then completed the verse. Moses began by saying, I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, and the Israelites repeated what he had said, and then completed the verse with him, saying, I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and its rider He hurled into the sea. Moses began saying, The Lord is my strength and my song, and the Israelites repeated and then completed the verse with him, saying, The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation. Moses began saying, The Lord is a warrior, and the Israelites repeated and then completed the verse with him, saying, The Lord is a warrior, Lord is His name. (Mechilta Beshallach Parshah 1)Technically, as the Talmud explains, the sages are debating the implication of the (apparently) superfluous words vayomru lemor, “they said, saying”, which they understood to mean “repeating”. What did the Israelites repeat? For R. Akiva it was the first words of the song only, which they repeated as a litany. For R. Eliezer son of R. Jose the Galilean they repeated the whole song, phrase by phrase. For R. Nehemiah they recited the entire song in unison. For R. Eliezer ben Taddai they repeated the opening phrase of each line, but then completed the whole verse without Moses having to teach it to them.
Read thus, we have before us a localised debate on the meaning of a biblical verse. There is, however, a deeper issue at stake. To understand this, we must look at another Talmudic passage, on the face of it unrelated to the passage in Sotah. It appears in the tractate of Kiddushin, and poses a fascinating question. There are various people we are commanded to honour: a parent, a teacher (i.e. a rabbi), the Nasi, (religious head of the Jewish community), and a king. Many any of these four types renounce the honour that is their due?
R. Isaac ben Shila said in the name of R. Mattena, in the name of R. Hisda: If a father renounces the honour due to him, it is renounced, but if a rabbi renounces the honour due to him it is not renounced. R. Joseph ruled: Even if a rabbi renounces his honour, it is renounced . . .
R. Ashi said: Even on the view that a rabbi may renounce his honour, if a Nasi renounces his honour, the renunciation is invalid . . . .
Rather, if was stated, it was stated thus: Even on the view that a Nasi may renounce his honour, yet a king may not renounce his honour, as it is said, You shall surely set a king over you, meaning, his authority should be over you. (Kiddushin 32 a-b)
Each of these people exercises a leadership role: father to son, teacher to disciple, Nasi to the community and king to the nation. Analysed in depth, the passages makes it clear that these four roles occupy different places on the spectrum between authority predicated on the person and authority vested in the holder of an office. The more the relationship is personal, the more easily honour can be renounced. At one extreme is the role of a parent (intensely personal), at the other that of king (wholly official).
I suggest that this was the issue at stake in the argument over how Moses and the Israelites sang the Song at the Sea. For R. Akiva, Moses was like a king. He spoke, and the people merely answered Amen (in this case, the words “I will sing to the Lord”). For R. Eliezer son of R. Jose the Galilean, he was like a teacher. Moses spoke, and the Israelites repeated, phrase by phrase, what he had said. For R. Nehemiah, he was like a Nasi among his rabbinical colleagues (the passage in Kiddushin, which holds that a Nasi may renounce his honour, makes it clear that this is only among his fellow rabbis). The relationship was collegial: Moses began, but thereafter, they sung in unison. For R. Eliezer ben Taddai Moses was like a father. He began, but allowed the Israelites to complete each verse. This is the great truth about parenthood, made clear in the first glimpse we have of Abraham:
Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. (Bereishith 31:11)
Abraham completed the journey his father began. To be a parent is to want one’s children to go further than you did. That too, for R. Eliezer ben Taddai, was Moses’ relationship to the Israelites.
The prelude to the Song at the Sea states that the people “believed in G-d and in his servant Moses” – the first time they are described as believing in Moses’ leadership. On this, the sages asked: What is it to be a leader of the Jewish people? Is it to hold official authority, of which the supreme example is a king (“The rabbis are called kings”)? Is it to have the kind of personal relationship with one’s followers that rests not on honour and deference but on encouraging people to grow, accept responsibility and continue the journey you have begun? Or is it something in between?
There is no single answer. At times, Moses asserted his authority (during the Korach rebellion). At others, he expressed the wish that “all G-d’s people were prophets”. Judaism is a complex faith. There is no one Torah model of leadership. We are each called on to fill a number of leadership roles: as parents, teachers, friends, team-members and team-leaders. There is no doubt, however, that Judaism favours as an ideal the role of parent, encouraging those we lead to continue the journey we have begun, and go further than we did. A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders. That was Moses’ greatest achievement – that he left behind him a people willing, in each generation, to accept responsibility for taking further the great task he had begun.
What it is to be a Jew
“Some people like the Jews and some do not”, said Winston Churchill. “But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are beyond question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.” I have tried to say what it means to me to be a part of that people. Jewry survived while every empire that sought its destruction has ceased to be. In our own time it has passed through the worst crime of man against man, the Holocaust, and yet still it affirms life. Today the Jewish people are not old. If anything they are young. The state of Israel in a mere half-century has achieved things for which there is no comparison in any of the hundred or more new states that have come into being in the United Nations since the end of the Second World War. To be part of that history is a rare and precious heritage, and one of which I am proud.
Albert Einstein once said, “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence – these are the features of the Jewish tradition which makes me thanks my stars I belong to it.” I share his sense of gratitude. It is more than thirty years since I began my own personal journey towards faith, and time and again I have been enthralled by the discoveries I have made along the way. Judaism is an adult faith. It does not call for the suspension of disbelief or what Alice in Wonderland’s Queen described as “believing six impossible things before breakfast”. Surely no religion has more actively encouraged the asking of questions, above all within the yeshivah, the citadel of traditional Jewish learning. Rabbi Abraham Twerski describes a moment familiar to anyone who has spent time in such an environment. When he was young, his instructor would relish challenges to his arguments, the more forceful the better. IN his broken English he would say, “You right! You a hundred prozent right! Now I show you where you wrong.” And there is a moving honesty about the Jewish mind. Despite the formidable intellectual energies Jews have devoted throughout the centuries to interpreting the will and word of G-d, they rarely wrote systematic theologies. They prayed to G-d and argued with Him, but they did not try to fit Him into the finite categories of human thought. They never forgot that G-d is more like a person than a concept, and therefore there will always be much about him that eludes understanding.
And then there is the immense moral energy at the core of Jewish life, that “almost fanatical love of justice” that connects Abraham and Moses with the Jewish civil rights and anti-apartheid activists of more recent times. I have tried in this book to trace it back to the haunting image of the palace in flames. And to the tension between the world as it is and as it ought to be, that only action can resolve. The late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the outstanding thinkers of the twentieth century, recounts an occasion when his grandfather, Rabbi Hayyim of Brisk, was asked what the function of a rabbi is. Without hesitation he replied, “To redress the grievances of those who have been abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” Why is it that this answer does not surprise us, yet coming from an Oxford or Harvard professor it might?
“Reb Hayyim” as he was known, was one of the legendary scholars of the Volozhyn yeshivah in the nineteenth century, and yet Judaism’s houses of study were rarely detached from social concern for the community as a whole. It was well known that Reb Hayyim would give away most of his salary to the poor and leave his wood store unlocked so that anyone needing fuel could come and take it. When his layleaders complained about the cost, he replied that in that case he would have to instruct his wife never to light the fire because he could not sit in the warmth while the poor went cold. There is a direct line between Reb Hayyim and 50 per cent of California Jews who, when asked what being Jewish meant to them, replied “Social Justice” – three times the figure for any other factor. The restless drive to “perfect the world under the sovereignty of G-d” is a Jewish instinct that survives long after other practises have been abandoned.
Was it the insistence on the absolute transcendence of G-d that allows Jews to see the human situation so clearly, understanding both our small and potential greatness as “partners with the Holy One, Blessed be He, in the work of creation”? Unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a religion of salvation. We do not believe that we stand under the shadow of “original sin” and therefore need to be saved. Nor, like so many secular systems from ancient Greece to today, do we see the individual as fundamentally alone in a sea of hostile, or at best indifferent, forces. It is not that these are untenable views; they have given rise to major civilizations. Yet it would be hard to find another people who, over time, have endowed the human individual with more dignity and responsibility. Perhaps that is why, although Jewry has always been small – today a mere quarter of a percent of the population of the world – its impact has been so disproportionate to its numbers. Judaism expects great things of its adherents; a people who saw themselves as a “kingdom of priests” could do no less. And high expectations give rise to high achievements.
(From “Radical Then, Radical Now” – Continuum – 2000 Pages 207-208 )