This past fall I had the chance to guest teach in the 7th grade Torah School class. I invited the students to play a game of "Ask the rabbi?" They asked me questions about Judaism, spirituality, and my own story. The bulk of which were about my relationship to God. There were several questions along the lines of, "Do you believe in God? What do you think God is?" I shared some of my own theology about how God isn't a Jewish word. And some of my favorite names for the Divine that come from Torah. The Ineffable, the Mystery, My Rock, Breath of Life. But even more so, I affirmed the importance of asking the question.
For so many of us, maybe even most of us, believing in God is not organic. It doesn't come naturally. If anything, the opposite is true. We inherit or absorb a concept of God that we davka don't believe in. If we don't know what God is, how can we feel connected, supported, even sustained by such a force/concept/presence? Which is why a moment of spiritual clarity stands out in parashat Beshalach like a signal fire.
The Israelites have been freed from slavery. They have left Mitzrayim and begun their long circuitous journey through the desert. They arrive at the Sea of Reeds, unsure how they will cross. Pharaoh's army is drawing near. Moses raises his staff. One brave Nachson steps neck deep into the waters and the sea parts. The Israelites crossed b'yabasha b'toch hayam, on dry land in the midst of the sea. And as they crossed, they sang!
About this moment, Rabbi Aviva Richman writes, "As the people of Israel witness revelation when the Sea splits, [they] 'point' and exclaim, 'This is my God!'—erupting in the Song of the Sea...To be able to point and identify someone means you must have known them before. How is it possible that the people of Israel already knew God?"
One midrash imagines that while the Israelites did not already know God, some of their children did. Returning to an earlier moment in the Exodus story in which Pharaoh ordered all of the Israelites' baby boys to be drowned in the Nile, a midrash asks (Otzar HaMidrashim p. 305, #17):
How do we know that the sons thrown into the Nile River went up with their parents out of Egypt?
To which the midrash responds:
The Holy Blessed One signaled to the angel appointed over the water and it spit them out into the wilderness. They ate and drank and flourished there.
Rabbi Richman explains, "Unable to imagine that the boys thrown into the river were left behind, this tradition posits a divine hand of love and care that rescued and nourished these children so they could be reunited with their families."
Yet another midrash (Shemot Rabbah 1:13) imagines that these same children grow up and find their way back to their families in Mitzrayim before the Exodus, and then they leave Mitzrayim together with their parents.
Now in this moment of revelation at the Sea, the children recognize God first, because they had already been in prior relationship with God (when they were saved from their death in the Nile!).
וכיון שמתגדלין באין עדרים עדרים לבתיהן...
וכשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הים הם הכירוהו תחלה, שנאמר: זה אלי ואנוהו.
"When they grew up they would come to their homes, in flocks...when the Holy Blessed One was revealed at the Sea, they recognized [God] first, as it says, 'This is my God and I will glorify [God].'"
Rabbi Richman concludes, "The children 'introduce' God to their parents, as it were. The parents can only see God through the eyes of their children."
This has been my experience as a parent and as a spiritual seeker. Sometimes we can only recognize the Divine through the experiences of others, and so often from children specifically. This teaching comes as a reminder of how ancient and worthy such spiritual interdependence is.
We do not need to develop a relationship to the Divine in isolation. We can rely on each other, we can learn from our elders and our children, we can draw confidence from other members of our community. A belief in God, a knowing so clear that we can point to it with clarity and certainty, can grow when we bear witness to the faith of others.
We live in a world that teaches us to doubt our own truth. May we draw strength from our ancestors, who sang their way across the sea. And may we have moments of spiritual clarity and connection, to be able to point and say, "This is it!"
In the words of the psalter,
Karov Adonai l'khol korav - The Holy One is close to all who call out, b'emet, authentically, in their own way!
Rabbi Ari Lev
You can search Rabbi Ari Lev's blog below:
Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.