Redemptive Relationship, Part 2: Leaving and Coming (Back) Home
In Parashat Bo, we began an exploration of the different stories of how Israel “fell in love” with God. Whatever our own relationship with God may or may not be, the different moments accentuated in alternate versions of this love story bring our attention to different ways transformative relationship can take shape. Far from a naive picture of the beloved who swoops in to make everything better, digging deeper into these texts we find a more rugged texture of how redemptive relationship interfaces with complex realities. This week we explore the relationship between parents and children, their respective relationships with God, and how these webs of relationship shape each other.
Parashat BeShallah brings us to the second scene of the formative moment in Israel’s relationship with God: on the banks of the Reed Sea. Instead of lingering in the darkness of Egypt, as we saw in Parashat Bo, this encounter comes in a state of full view and vision, as the people of Israel witness revelation when the Sea splits, “point” and exclaim, “This is my God!”—erupting in the Song of the Sea:
שיר השירים רבה ב:א
דָּבָר אַחֵר, אֲנִי חֲבַצֶּלֶת הַשָּׁרוֹן, אֲנִי הִיא וַחֲבִיבָה אָנִי, אֲנִי הִיא שֶׁהָיִיתִי חֲבוּיָה בְּצִלּוֹ שֶׁל יָם, וּלְשָׁעָה קַלָּה הִרְטַבְתִּי מַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים כְּשׁוֹשַׁנָּה, וְהֶרְאֵיתִיו בְּאֶצְבַּע מָנוֹן עֲבוּרִי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות טו, ב): זֶה אֵלִי וְאַנְוֵהוּ.
Shir HaShirim Rabbah 2:1
Another interpretation: “I am a rose (havatzelet) of Sharon[, a lily of the valleys].” I am she and I am beloved (havivah). I am she who was beloved in the shadow (tzeil) of the Sea, and in a short time I bloomed with good deeds like “a lily,” and I pointed to God with my finger,1 as it is said, “This is my God and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2).
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? Midrash relates that for the most part they didn’t—but some of their children did.
אוצר המדרשים עמ׳ שה
מנין שהבנים שהשליכו ליאור עלו עם אבותם ממצרים?
שרמז הקדוש ברוך הוא למלאך הממונה על המים ופלטן למדבר והיו אוכלין ושותין ופרים ורבין.
Otzar HaMidrashim2 p. 305, #17
How do we know that the sons thrown into the Nile River went up with their parents out of Egypt?
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.
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. Two distinct versions of how this reunion happens offer diverging pictures of the relationships between parents, children, and God.
In one version, these children came back to their families at the crossing of the Sea. The first act of recognition in this scene is not Israel pointing at and recognizing God, but the children pointing at and recognizing their parents.
Ending 1 (continuation of Otzar HaMidrashim)
וכשהיו ישראל על שפת הים באו בניהם כנגדם ופתחו פיהם ואמרו אלו אבותינו!
And when the people of Israel were on the banks of the [Reed] Sea, their children came in front of them and opened their mouths and said, “These are our fathers!”
It is this moment of reunification, when the parents realized that their children were not lost but cared for, that led them to claim God as their God, the one who cared for their children.
מיד פתחו אבותיהם ואמרו זה אלי ואנוהו.
Their fathers opened their mouths and said, “This is my God and I will glorify Him.”
Upon seeing their parents enter into relationship with God, these children now sense a new dimension in their own relationship with God. This God who has cared for them is not entirely separate from the rest of their lives, but integrated into their relationship with their families. They give voice to the next part of the verse.
אמרו הבנים אלהי אבי וארוממנהו.
Their children said: “God of my father and I will exalt Him.”
We learn that the people of Israel leaving Egypt had no prior knowledge of God, and that the slew of miracles they had experienced did not automatically lead them to say, “This is my God” at the divine revelation at the Sea. In fact, according to this midrash, it seems like they wouldn’t have claimed this relationship with God so long as they thought they had lost some of their children. Leaving Egypt didn’t matter if their children were left behind. What made them open their mouths to want “this God” is when they realized God had cared for their children and brought them back. Perhaps similarly, these children, as indebted as they may have felt to God, couldn’t bring themselves to “exalt” God so long as they were separated from their parents. Being close with God and being close with loved ones are deeply intertwined in this text: children and parents don’t know each other without God, and each is only ready to fully step into relationship with God when they are also in relationship with each other. Crucial in this picture is that the two groups do not have the same experience of God, but their diverging religious journeys still ultimately bring them closer together.
A different ending to the story highlights a different dynamic in the relationship between parents, children, and God. In this version, the children raised by God in the middle of nowhere came home to their parents before the Exodus from Egypt, and they left Egypt together with their parents. At the Sea, then, the children were able to recognize God first, because they had already been in prior relationship with God.
שמות רבה א:יג
וכיון שמתגדלין באין עדרים עדרים לבתיהן... וכשנגלה הקדוש ברוך הוא על הים הם הכירוהו תחלה, שנאמר: זה אלי ואנוהו.
Shemot Rabbah 1:13
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].”
The children “introduce” God to their parents, as it were. The parents can only see God through the eyes of their children.
Behind these dramatic tellings of the Exodus story, there are profound implications for knowing the limits of our own understanding of who God is, and what might open our eyes to recognize God differently. In this second version, there is what may feel like a reversal from the way we usually conceive of religious education. Instead of parents teaching children to recognize God, children are the ones able to bring their parents to identify who and what God is.
The power of this way of knowing God, embedded in children and parents losing and finding each other, provides a striking intertext to the origins of our relationship with God in the book of Genesis, where Avram leaves home to pursue God and never returns.3 If Avram’s relationship with God represents the ways we need to leave home, to detach and dissociate from an earlier generation that “got God wrong,” the scene at the Sea is a kind of counterbalance, where coming to know God involves coming home. The statement, “This is my God,” comes only when children come home to be with their parents. At the same time, there is an element of Avram’s story here, where the children—not of any willful act of their own—have had an experience of God totally separate from their parents. Indeed, there are strands of biblical text and many midrashim that assume the people of Israel worshiped idols in Egypt, not so different from Avram’s father.4 However, quite different than the story of Avram, the children who have come to an authentic experience of God are able to bring that back home to their parents, and catalyze their parents’ coming into a new understanding and relationship with God.5
What emerges is a dynamic picture of how our own deep learning and identity diverges from and converges with our parents’. Sometimes we feel we want to leave behind aspects of our religious upbringing, like Avram leaving home. This may not be because there was anything “wrong” with what we have inherited, but because this divergence is necessary for continued growth. When we are open to where these journeys take us, and when we are open to where the journeys of our children or parents take them, these experiences of distance can be a source of deeper understanding and relationship. Our own religious journeys might lead us deeper into relationship with our parents or children, rather than making us grow further apart, even as we don’t see exactly eye to eye. And, our relationship with our parents or children might lead us into deeper knowledge of our own religious identities, our own sense of being able to point at “who God is,” even as what we see may differ from our parents our children.
1 The word “זה - this” in the Torah is by default understood by our rabbis to refer to something that you can point to, that is right in front of you, and not something abstract or ephemeral. This is the impetus for the midrash of highlighting the “pointing with the finger” in response to a verse which uses the word “this.” Another great example of this is in the Haggadah, where Exodus 13:8 (“Because of זה - this”) refers to the symbols of the Seder plate and the rituals of Seder night.
5 Maimonides in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32 talks about sacrifices in a way that is resonant with this discussion. Although the system of korbanot are mandated by God and the Torah, they were only supposed to be a stepping stone to deeper avodah. In the end, sacrifices are no better than avodah zarah once the next stage, tefillah (and ultimately: meditation) has been reached.