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The Song to the Violent God

Torah Talk for Shabbat B’Shalach/Shirah 5780

“God (YHVH) is a man of war! YHVH is His Name!” -- Exodus 15:3

The Torah portion of B’Shalach is justly famous for two reasons. First, it tells the great tale of the crossing of the yam suf, the Sea or Reeds (or perhaps the Red Sea) and the redemption of the people of Israel from destruction at the hands of Pharaoh’s army. Second, after the crossing, Moses and the people of Israel sing the magnificent Az Yashir Moshe, Moses’s Song, about their salvation through divine action. B’Shalach is always Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Song, and it is celebrated with special musical services in virtually every Reform, Progressive and Conservative synagogue in the world.

The story itself couldn’t be much more familiar, not only from the Torah itself and every Passover Seder you have ever attended, but from the arts, too. The Exodus is featured in paintings, novels, and poems and there have been a variety of mediocre film interpretations, ranging from “The Ten Commandments” to “The Prince of Egypt” to “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Still, the story is worth hearing again.

In last week’s portion of Bo, the Hebrew slaves were freed following the tenth and final plague, the traumatic deaths of the first-born throughout Egypt at the hands of the Angel of Death. Traveling light, the freshly liberated Israelites headed east towards the distant Promised Land. This week, at the very start of B’shalach, Pharaoh changes his mind, and sends his chariot army to destroy the newly minted Semitic freedmen and women, now stranded on the shore of a sea. God intervenes, wind parts the waters, the Israelites pass safely to the other side, and when Pharaoh’s army pursues them the waters return, swamping and then drowning the Egyptians. The people of Israel are redeemed, and sing with great joy of their salvation.

It is notable that this Shabbat Shirah, and especially the poetic call-and-response text of the Az Yashir itself, presents the most militant vision of God we have ever had in Jewish tradition. From the first line, “Horse and rider He has hurled into the sea!” to “God is a man of war!” through “Your right hand, God, shatters the enemy!” and “in Your triumph You break Your opponents, You send forth Your fury, devour them like straw,” God is depicted as the mightiest, most violent warrior of all. B’Shalach presents God as action hero, not peacemaker. This is no Oseh Shalom: this is God acting forcefully to annihilate the enemies of His people, YHVH Ish milchamah.

For those who prefer beautiful images of a peace-loving Almighty, B’Shalach is a challenge. While we appreciate God acting directly on our behalf, and we certainly value God’s role as the great liberator, it is surprising to see the level of bloodthirsty violence in our parsha. Judaism has never been a pacifistic faith, but it has almost never cultivated a warrior culture. With the exception of the Maccabees, who took as their motto the most famous text from this very Song of Moses Mi chamocha ba’Eilim Adonai, Jews have never gloried in armed might or created a hero-oriented military machine. Even today’s IDF remembers Golda Meir’s comment that, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

Yet in this celebrated Torah portion we find God glowingly portrayed as a bloodthirsty, vengeful deity, no less harsh and brutal than the Hindu Shiva or the Roman Mars, a God more suitable to Sparta than Jerusalem, the City of Peace. What are we to make of a God who celebrates life, yet here willingly administers early, violent death wholesale?

There is a very interesting linguistic piece to this puzzle. The name of God usually associated with judgment and punishment in Jewish tradition is Elohim. But powerfully, and strangely, the holiest name of God, the four-letter Tetragrammaton YHVH, is used 10 separate times in the Song of Moses, perhaps echoing the 10 plagues this same God wrought against the Egyptians. A couple of weeks ago, in Shemot, God revealed God’s own essence to Moses in the Burning Bush episode, telling him that he was now to be known to Moses uniquely by this special YHVH name. There, it was an indication of intimacy. Now, three weeks and twelve chapters later, the name is repeated again and again in the context of martial power and violent action.

The name YHVH is usually understood to be combination of the three forms of the verb “to be” in Hebrew, was, is, will be, past, present, and future. It implies that God represents unlimited potential, beyond time and space, beyond spacetime, and has unlimited power. The name, YHVH is associated with great power and unassailable sanctity. This holiest name of God eventually was limited to a very specific use, spoken aloud only on Yom Kippur by the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest, as he asked for atonement for the people in the Holy of Holies, the Kadosh Kadoshim.

Perhaps the hidden lesson here is that God, YHVH, the All-Powerful, All-Potential is supposed to be the only dispenser of divine justice, violent or otherwise. We mere human beings are essentially a passive audience watching divine retribution enacted. Just as B’Shalach tells us that God is the only One who truly heals, Ani Adonai (YHVH) Rofecha, so the Az Yashir it is telling us that God is the only true warrior empowered to wreak vengeance. Justice is needed, but it is God and only God who has the capacity to enforce it when necessary.

Even the fact that this is all conveyed in vocal song hints at this. I studied classical voice for 9 years on the way to my previous career as a Hazzan, and I promise you that for all the volume involved in cantorial singing it is not a violent act. In fact, the best classical singers use the least tension and stress in order to produce the clearest, most beautiful tones.

So, too, B’shalach is subtly teaching us that in this occupation of violent killing, our role is to sing about God, not imitate God.

I will sing a song to God because God is a man of war. And therefore, I do not have to become one.

It was true for our ancestors on the shore of the Sea. In this violent, turbulent world we can hope and pray—and even sing—that it will prove to be true for all of us some day.

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