Shabbat candles: 4:57 p.m.
Torah: Exodus 13:17-17:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:312 (Ashkenaz);
Havdalah: 6:01 p.m.
“Israel saw the great hand that God inflicted on Egypt and the people revered God and they and they had faith in God and in Moses His servant” [Exodus 14: 31].
In this week’s parsha, we read of one of the greatest miracles of all, the splitting of the Red Sea. It was a moment when all of the Jewish people experienced God’s miracles. Rashi [Ex. 15:2] quotes a famous Midrash which teaches that even the simplest handmaid at the Red Sea experienced prophecy which was more powerful than that of one of the greatest prophets, Ezekiel.
A couple of weeks ago, we saw how God made his presence known to our forefathers as El Shaddai. The splitting of the Red Sea was the culmination of God’s promise that the Jewish People had entered a new phase of history in which they would experience God by His name and attributes of Hashem (Y-H-V-H). What is the significance of this new perception of God and what does it signify about our own relationship to God?
Rashi explains that in the past God made great promises to our forefathers, but He had not yet fulfilled them. Everything lay in potential, but the promises for the fruition of the Jewish nation had not yet been realized.
The Ramban explains how through the Exodus in general and at the Red Sea in particular, God performed miracles showing His power and mastery over the nature. Now, the Jewish people witness God as the director of history; rescuing His people and developing the Jewish nation.
Working through history, God is acting in partnership with the Jewish people. He has freed His nation of slaves, now He is working together with them to build the Jewish nation that will receive the Torah at Mount Sinai and live out its ideals and its commandments in the Promised Land. To fulfill this role, God will require eternal patience. The people will prove to be stubborn, fickle and complex. Nevertheless, God will make them His partners and work together with them.
Our role and our challenge as the partners of God in history is beautifully expressed in a story about one of the great Jewish leaders of the 20th century, Rabbi Shimon Schwab (1908-1995).
Rabbi Schwab writes in his memoirs that when he was a young man, he thirsted to learn more and more Torah. He studied at the famous Torah Academies of Telshe and Mir, but he was still desperate to learn with the saintly scholar Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, affectionately known by the title of one of his books, “The Chafetz Chaim.”
In 1930, the young Rabbi Schwab traveled by foot to Radin, hometown of the Chafetz Chaim. It was a long and difficult journey, but eventually he reached the Yeshiva, found a seat and began to study. He studied with great diligence and dedication, but to his dismay there was no opportunity to meet the renowned scholar. He waited patiently, but eventually, after six months, he could bare it no longer. Plucking up his courage, he went to the home of the Chafetz Chaim, knocked on the door and filled with trepidation, he explained what he wanted.
The Chafetz Chaim welcomed him in to his sparsely furnished house, offered him tea and cake and proceeded to offer a first lesson. But before he started, the Chafetz Chaim who was himself a Kohen (descendent of the priest-teachers who served in the Temple and whose descendents will serve there in the future) asked the young man whether he was a Cohen too. The young man responded that he was not. And then the Chafetz Chaim started to teach. This is what he said:
“When the Messiah comes, he will bring us all to the Land of Israel. We’ll sail to the port of Jaffa and from there we will make our way to Jerusalem. Once we arrive in Jerusalem, there will be tremendous excitement, we will head to Temple Mount and then make our way to the Beit Hamikdash (Temple). But there we will have to separate: I will enter with the Kohanim and you will have to wait outside. I say this not to upset you, but to offer you a challenge.
“Years ago, when our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai and then panicked at the disappearance of their leader, they asked Aaron to build a Golden Calf. When Moshe came down from the mountain, he saw the terrible sight of the Jewish people dancing around this idol, he proclaimed, ‘Let those who are for God follow me’ [Ex. 32: 26], but only one tribe responded — my ancestors the Tribe of Levi. That is why we are the Kohanim and you are not. So I beg you, next time when you here the call of the God of history, do not miss your opportunity. Respond immediately.”
This was the message of the Chafetz Chaim. We are privileged to live in a generation that, like the generation that crossed the Red Sea, is privileged to see God working in history. God calls to us with a mission to perfect the world according to His vision. This time we dare not refuse the challenge.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.