Between Immanence and Transcendence
Parashat BeShallah brings us to the dramatic climax of the Exodus, the splitting of the Reed Sea. This was not only one of the most dramatic and necessary miracles of the Torah, it is also one of its greatest moments of Divine revelation. God appeared to the Jewish people at the Sea in a way that He hadn’t appeared before and did not appear since.1 After the successful crossing of the Sea by the Israelites and the drowning of the Egyptians who were chasing them, Miriam and Moshe led the people in song. We see God’s appearance reflected in this song through the way it expresses the reaction of the people to this miracle. In this poem, we also see that God appears to us in different ways at different times and that a dynamic relationship with God is both natural and necessary.
The midrash in Shemot Rabbah describes how unique, complete, and unmediated the revelation of God was at the Sea:
שמות רבה כג:טו
זה אלי ואנוהו (שמות טו:ב) - אמר ר' ברכיה: בא וראה, כמה גדולים יורדי הים! משה כמה נתחבט ונתחנן לפני המקום, עד שראה את הדמות, שנאמר: "הראני נא את כבודך" (שמות לג:יח). אמר לו הקב"ה: "לא תוכל לראות את פני" (שמות לג:כ), ובסוף הראה לו בסימן, שנאמר: "והיה בעבור כבודי… וראית את אחורי ופני לא יראו" (שמות לג: כב-כג). החיות הנושאות את הכסא אינן מכירות את הדמות, ובשעה שמגיע זמנן לומר שירה הן אומרות: "באיזה מקום הוא? אין אנו יודעות, אם כאן הוא, אם במקום אחר הוא, אלא בכל מקום שהוא: ברוך כבוד ה' ממקומו (יחזקאל ג:יב)!" ועולי הים היה כל אחד ואחד מראה באצבעו ואומר: זה אלי ואנוהו.
Shemot Rabbah 23:15
This is my God and I will ascribe beauty to Him (Shemot 15:2). R. Berakhiah said: Come and see how great those who went into the Sea were! How much did Moshe2 need to subjugate himself and plea before God until he was shown the [Divine] Image! As it says, “Show me Your Glory!” (Shemot 33:18) God replied to him, “You will not be able to see My face” (Shemot 33:20) and in the end He showed him with a sign, as it says, “And it will be when My glory passes… you will see My back, but My face will not be visible.” (Shemot 33:22-23). And the hayyot-angels who carry the heavenly Throne3 do not recognize the [Divine] Image. And when their time comes to sing they say, “Where is He? We don’t know if He is here or there, so wherever He may be, Blessed is God’s glory from His place” (Yehezkel 3:12). But every single one of those who came out of the Sea pointed with their finger saying, “This is my God, and I will ascribe beauty to Him!”
Even Moshe, who ascended the mountain of Sinai and spoke to God directly, and even the angels, who bear God’s throne and are so close to God, cannot recognize God the way that Benei Yisrael did. Benei Yisrael can point to God and say, zeh—this One4 is our God, and we recognize Him. The proof that they saw God in this clear way at the parting of the Sea is based on the second verse of the Song of the Sea, “Az yashir:”
אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַה' וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר אָשִׁירָה לַּה' כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם: עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ:
Then Moshe and Benei Yisrael sang this song to God: I will sing to God, for He is supremely great, drowning horse and rider in the sea. God is song and my strength, and He will be my salvation. This is my God, and I will ascribe beauty to Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.
The translation above accords with the principle of biblical parallelism, wherein the second half of the poetic line is a restatement of the first half. Therefore, the word v’anvehu וְאַנְוֵהוּ is translated to mean that I will beautify God by ascribing beauty to Him in accordance with the meaning of va’aromimenhu וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהוּ, I will exalt Him. Both halves of the phrase speak about praising God’s attributes first as beautiful, then as exalted: This is my God and I will ascribe beauty to Him, the God of my Father, and I will exalt him. According to this translation, the root of the word v’anvehu וְאַנְוֵהוּ is na’eh נ,א,ה, fitting, lovely, or beautiful.
However, Targum Onkelos’s Aramaic translation, while maintaining the parallelism, translates this verse quite differently:
תרגום אונקלוס שמות טו:ב
דֵין אֱלָהַי וְאֶבְנֵי לֵהּ מַקְדְשָׁא אֱלָהָא דַאֲבָהָתַי וְאֶפְלַח קֳדָמוֹהִי:
Targum Onkelos Shemot 15:2
This is my God, and I will build a temple for Him, the God of my fathers, and I will worship before Him.
According to Targum Onkelos, the root of v’anvehu is naveh נ,ו,ה a word that means home.5 I will build God a place to dwell, a temple, in which I will be able to feel close to God and worship Him.
These two interpretations are reflected in a Tannaitic dispute recorded in Massekhet Shabbat6 where the text tries to derive more midrashic meaning from the hard-to-translate term, v’anvehu:
תלמוד בבלי שבת קלג:
דתניא זה אלי ואנוהו - התנאה לפניו במצות. עשה לפניו סוכה נאה ולולב נאה ושופר נאה ציצית נאה ספר תורה נאה וכתוב בו לשמו בדיו נאה בקולמוס נאה בלבלר אומן וכורכו בשיראין נאין.
אבא שאול אומר: ואנוהו - הוי דומה לו מה הוא חנון ורחום אף אתה היה חנון ורחום.
Talmud Bavli Shabbat 133b
As it is taught in a baraita: This is my God v’anvehu—Become beautiful, na’eh, before Him through the mitzvot. Construct before Him a beautiful sukkah, [take a] beautiful lulav, blow a beautiful shofar, wear beautiful tzitzit, write a beautiful sefer torah in which you write for the sake of God’s name with beautiful ink, a beautiful quill, with a skilled scribe, and wrap it in beautiful fabrics.
Abba Shaul says: V’anvehu—Be like Him. Just as He is gracious and merciful, so too you should be gracious and merciful.
The first, anonymous opinion recorded in the baraita reflects our original understanding that the root of v’anvehu is na’eh, a term related to beauty. However, unlike the plain rendering of the poem, in the midrashic reading, the beauty is not something that I ascribe to God; rather, it is beauty that I bring to God. Whereas the peshat of v’anvehu is that I will beautify God by attributing beauty to Him, in this midrash, I beautify God by doing God’s mitzvot in a beautiful fashion.
However, Abba Shaul’s interpretation does not refer to beauty at all. According to Rashi,7 Abba Shaul derives his interpretation from the technique of notarikon,8 when you read an unfamiliar word as a contraction of other, more familiar words. According to Abba Shaul, the word v’anvehu is composed of the words ani v’ hu = He and I; v’anvehu—v’ani’ v’hu. Abba Shaul’s interpretation reflects the translation of the Targum Onkelos that v’anvehu means that we are promising to build God a home because a home is a place where He and we can be together, ani v’hu. In both of these interpretations, what we want is to be close to God. According to Abba Shaul, we unify with God by being like Him, so there is no distinction in character between ani v’hu. According to Onkelos, there is no distinction in place between ani v’hu—we are both in the Temple.
In these interpretations, v’anvehu is about relating to God intimately—either through physical closeness or spiritual likeness. When the Targum Onkelos and Abba Shaul render v’anvehu as an invitation to greater intimacy with God, it highlights that the parallel phrase in the verse, elohei avi v’aromimenu, He is the God of my father, and I will exalt him, can be read as having the opposite connotation. When I exalt God I highlight how different we are. If God is high, then I am low. God is great, and I am not.
Therefore, the phrase זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ, אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי וַאֲרֹמְמֶנְהו can be read as encoding two very distinct approaches to relating to God which are in tension with one another. There is my God, Whom I can identify and with Whom I can identify, with Whom I feel close. I can build a home with Him. I can know Him well enough to understand and become like Him. And there is a very different God, Whom I know about through a mediated experience, Whom I know by reputation. He is the God of my ancestors, the God I inherited from my father. That God is a distant God.
According to a stunning midrash in Massekhet Sotah, the immanent, recognizable God of exaltation is a God that is experienced and appreciated most by the children who were at the splitting of the Sea:
תלמוד בבלי סוטה ל:-לא.
תנו רבנן: דרש רבי יוסי הגלילי בשעה שעלו ישראל מן הים נתנו עיניהם לומר שירה. וכיצד אמרו שירה עולל מוטל על ברכי אמו ותינוק יונק משדי אמו כיון שראו את השכינה עולל הגביה צוארו ותינוק שמט דד מפיו ואמרו זה אלי ואנוהו. שנאמר מפי עוללים ויונקים יסדת עוז (תהלים ח:ג). היה רבי מאיר אומר מנין שאפי' עוברים שבמעי אמן אמרו שירה שנאמר במקהלות ברכו אלהים ה' ממקור ישראל (תהלים סח:כז). והא לא חזו! אמר רבי תנחום כרס נעשה להן כאספקלריא המאירה וראו:9
Talmud Bavli Sotah 30b-31a
R. Yose HaGelili taught: When Israel emerged from the sea they raised their eyes to sing praise. How did they sing praise? Toddlers [who were] on the laps of their mothers and infants [who were] nursing from the breasts of their mothers when they saw the Shekhinah, the toddler would raise their neck and the infant would release the nipple from their mouth and say, “This is my God and I will ascribe beauty to Him.” As it says, From the mouths of toddlers and infants, You established strength (Tehilim 8:3). R. Meir would say: From where do we know that even fetuses who were in the wombs of their mothers sang praise? As it says, Bless God in assemblies, HaShem from the source (mekor)10 of Israel (Tehilim 68:27). But [fetuses] can’t see! R. Tanhum said: The belly became like a clear lens, and they were able to see.
According to this midrash, the God of v’anvehu is the God that is most clearly perceived by children who are so young that they do not yet speak. This is the God who is felt and who feels close. This is not the God of abstract, intellectual encounter, or the product of theological sophistry; this is the God of nurture. This is the God of the nursing mother, not the educating father. This is the God you love at home, not the God you learn about in school. Not elevated and exalted, but immanent and real.
Although these two images of God and Divine encounters seem very different and can often feel in opposition to one another, the verse in the Song of the Sea presents them as parallel. Just as I will build a home with my God, I will also exalt and magnify the God of my father.
By placing these two concepts next to each other and implicitly equating them, the text teaches us an important lesson in how we are to relate to God. It suggests that we are often asking the wrong question when we try to identify who or what God is because God is not limited to a single definition. God exists in relationship with us—God is transcendent and God is immanent; God is the unmoved mover of Aristotle and Maimonides, and He is the anthropomorphic God of the Torah and the midrash, who speaks to us, cares for us, and even looks like us.
This poem urges us to identify how we relate to God and then to challenge ourselves to alter that relationship, to move it in new directions, not to restrict God to the way that we currently think about Him. It encourages us to expand our definition of what it means to relate to the Divine, so that we can develop an increased vocabulary in which to speak to and about God, an increased ability to be like God, and an increased awareness of the many ways that God has to communicate with us. This poem urges us not to limit God to the kind of God that we already have—if we are experiencing God exclusively as an ancestral God, an inheritance that we feel so close to that we can take His presence for granted, then we need to praise God and raise God and set Him above us. And, if we are experiencing God exclusively as a distant concept that we can talk about and point to, but not interact with, then we need to build Him a home—on our earth and in our souls, with our bodies and through our behavior—and dwell in it with Him.
The verse also teaches us that a critical component of being in a relationship with God is paying attention to the dynamics of that relationship. Noticing how close or distant, how committed or confused we feel about God at any given moment is key to maintaining a real and live connection with Him. Understanding our own relationship and being sensitive to our own feelings is equally if not more important than a stance of unwavering closeness and firm belief. Sometimes God will feel like ours, and sometimes He won’t. We should not only rely upon an abstract belief or personal sense of God’s existence, rather we should be reinforcing what it means for God to exist by being attentive to and real in that relationship.
1 This sentiment is expressed by the Mekhilta’s statement that what the prophet Yehezkel saw in his vision of the heavenly throne pales in comparison to what a regular maidservant saw at the splitting of the Sea. See מכילתא דשירה ג, ד"ה זה אלי.
2 Interestingly, the midrash does not acknowledge that presumably Moshe himself was at the Reed Sea and should be counted among those who walked through and emerged from it.
3 According to the vision in Yehezkel 1, God’s presence moves in heaven by means of angels: the ofanim who move the throne horizontally and the hayyot who move the throne vertically.
4 It is a standard midrashic assumption that, whenever the Torah says “zeh,” it refers to something being pointed to. We enact this ritually at the Pesah seder when we point to the matzah and maror and say, “matzah zo” or “maror zeh.”
5 Rashi quotes both the interpretation of the Targum that v’anvehu refers to building a home for God and the translation suggested by the parallel that v’anvehu refers to praising God by attributing beauty to Him. Rashi quotes both but does not decide between them.
6 This baraita is quoting from the Mekhilta. In the Mekhilta’s version there are more than these two opinions.
7 Probably the best definition of na’eh is fitting. This can apply to something that “fits” or “matches” and looks aesthetically pleasing, and it can also apply to a circumstance where one’s outside presentation matches their internal character.
8 The term comes from shorthand notation. An example of this is the word Damesek in the description of Avraham’s slave as Damesek Eliezer (Bereishit 15:2). According to Talmud Bavli Yoma 25b, the word ד-משק should be seen as short for two separate words, ד=דולה (doleh, draws water) and משק=משקה (mashkeh, gives to drink).
9 Many manuscripts do not have this last line.
10 In rabbinic Hebrew, makor/source is a term used for the womb.