Parshat Beshalach 4

“Then Moshe and Bnai Yisrael sang this song to Hashem. And they said, “I will sing to Hashem for he is beyond all praise. The horse and its rider He threw into the sea.” (Shemot 15:1)

Bnai Yisrael emerge from the Reed Sea. They have safely emerged and the Egyptians have drowned. Moshe leads Bnai Yisrael in a song of praise. Our pasuk is the opening passage of Shirat HaYam – the Song of the Sea. The translation above is based on the comments of Rashi.[1] According to this interpretation, Moshe begins with the pronouncement that Hashem is beyond all praise. This is a rather amazing introduction to his shira – his praise of Hashem. Essentially, Moshe is announcing that his praise is inadequate. But yet, this does not discourage Moshe from engaging in the praise!

“My strength and song is G-d. And this will be my deliverance. This is my G-d and I will glorify Him. He is the G-d of my father and I will exalt Him.” (Shemot 15:2)

Many of the passages in the shira – this song of praise – are difficult to translate. The exact meaning of numerous phrases is debated by the commentaries. The above translation of the later the part of the passage is based upon the commentary of Rashbam.[2] Gershonides expands on this translation. He explains that this passage is a continuation of Moshe’s introduction. In the previous passage, Moshe acknowledges that Hashem is above all praise. In this passage Moshe is acknowledging that in his praises he will resort to material characterizations of Hashem.[3]

If the first passage of Moshe’s introduction seems odd, this passage is amazing. One of the fundamental principles of the Torah is that Hashem is not material and that no material characteristics can be ascribed to Him.[4] Nonetheless, Moshe acknowledges that he will employ material imagery in his praise of Hashem. After this introduction Moshe uses various material images to describe Hashem. He refers to Hashem as a “man of war.” He discusses the “right hand” of Hashem. In fact virtually every praise that Moshe formulates ascribes some material characteristic to Hashem.

The combined message of these two first passages is completely confusing. Moshe first acknowledges that no praise of Hashem is accurate; it cannot begin to capture Hashem’s greatness. In the second passage Moshe excuses himself for ignoring one of our most fundamental convictions regarding Hashem – that He is not material. Instead of providing an appropriate introduction to the shira, these two passages seem to argue that the entire endeavor is not only futile but is an act of blasphemy!

“I shall relate Your glory, though I do not see You. I shall allegorize You, I shall describe You though I do not know You. Through the hand of Your prophets, through the counsel of Your servants, You allegorized the splendorous glory of Your power. Your greatness and Your strength, they described the might of Your works. They allegorized You but not according to Your reality. And they portrayed You according to Your actions. The symbolized You in many visions. You are a unity in all of these allegories.”

(Shir HaKavod)
Our liturgy contains many profound insights. Unfortunately, sometimes, we do not carefully consider the meaning of the words. In many synagogues the Shir HaKavod – composed by Rav Yehuda HaChassid – is recited every Shabbat at the closing of services. The Shir HaKavod deals with the same issues that Moshe is discussing in his introduction to the Shirat HaYam. Let us carefully consider these lines.

We begin by acknowledging that we cannot see Hashem. In fact, we cannot truly know Hashem. Human understanding is limited. We cannot begin to conceptualize the nature of Hashem. This creates a paradox. How can we praise of even relate to Hashem? How can we relate to a G-d that is beyond the boundaries of human understanding? We respond that we will employ allegories.

But the use of allegories creates its own problems. If we do not know or understand Hashem’s nature, then on what basis will be form these allegories? What allegory can we formulate for a G-d so completely beyond the ken of human understanding? We respond that we will rely on the allegories provided by the prophets. We do not trust ourselves to create our own allegories. Instead, we must employ the allegories that are provided to us by Moshe and the other prophets.

Of course, this does not completely answer the question. Even Moshe was unable to achieve an understanding of the fundamental nature of Hashem. So, how can he help us? What allegory can Moshe provide for that which even he could not comprehend? The answer is that we never attempt to describe Hashem’s nature. No allegory can be adequate. All of our allegories are designed to describe Hashem’s actions and deeds. In other words, our allegories do not describe what Hashem is, only what He does.

Yet, at the same time that we employ the allegories of the prophets, we are required to acknowledge the limitation of these descriptions. We cannot – even for a moment – delude ourselves as to the accuracy of the terms we use when referring to Hashem. The allegorical terms are not in any way a description of Hashem’s reality. This means these terms are not a true description of Hashem’s real nature.

Finally, we acknowledge Hashem’s unity. Hashem is a perfect unity. This means He has no parts or characteristics. The multitude of allegories that we employ cannot lead us to err on this issue of unity. All of the various allegories that we employ relate back to a G-d that in fact is one. He does not have various characteristics or any characteristics. He is the perfect unity. Even when we refer to Hashem as kind or omniscient, we must recognize the limitation of this reference. Hashem does not truly have the characteristic of being kind or the quality of omniscience. These are allegorical characterizations.

The Shir HaKavod provides a fundamental insight. It attempts to resolve an important paradox. We need to relate to Hashem. Yet, we cannot truly comprehend His exalted nature. How can we form a relationship with that which we cannot know? In response to our human need, the Torah allows us to employ allegorical terms in reference to Hashem. But we must recognize that this is an accommodation. We are permitted to use allegorical terms and phrases. We are not permitted to accept these allegories as being accurate depictions of Hashem’s nature.

We can now understand Moshe’s introduction to Shirat HaYam. At the Reed Sea Bnai Yisrael experienced salvation. The people needed to respond. They needed to express their outpouring of thanks to Hashem. Moshe formulated Shirat HaYam in response to this need. But Moshe’s shira – like all praise of Hashem – is a not an accurate portrayal of Hashem. Instead, it is an accommodation to the human need to relate to Hashem. We are permitted this accommodation. But there is a precondition. We must first recognize that it is an accommodation. Our praise cannot capture the true greatness of Hashem – who is above all praise. And we must recognize that all of our praises rely on allegories but that are not true depictions of Hashem. This is Moshe’s introduction. Before he led Bnai Yisrael in song, he explains the limitations of our praises. They are incomplete and are merely allegories and not accurate descriptions of Hashem.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 15:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Shemot 15:2.

[3] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), pp. 111-112.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Mesechet Sanhedrin 10:1.