Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Shirat Hayam - Zeh Keili ve-Anveihu: An Expansion of the Character and Scope of Halachic Commitment

At the very beginning of the shirat ha-yam, after a brief introduction ("Ashirah la-Hashem ki gaoh gaah sus ve-rochvo ramah ba-yam") and a concise expression of appreciation ("Azi ve-zimrat Kah va-yehi li li-yeshuah"), Klal Yisrael declares, "zeh keili ve-anveihu elokei avi va-aromemenhu". The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) posits two intriguing interpretations for this crucial expression of commitment. The first (ve-anveihu - hitnaeh befanav bemizvot) focuses on the halachic demand to esthetically adorn the mizvot- to acquire pleasing minim for sukkot, to build an impressive sukkah, to invest effort and beauty in a mezuzah etc. The second view, advanced by Abba Shaul, requires that one not only comply with the mizvot, but also ambitiously embrace imatatio Dei - imitation of Hashem's midot-"mah hu rachum ve-chanun"- the cultivation of a compassionate persona. Why are these specialized two themes introduced immediately in the aftermath of "vaya'aminu ba-Hashem u-ve-Moshe avdo" as tone-setting motifs in what was possibly the first, and certainly was the most extensive "shirah" in the Torah (see Mechilta ad loc, Midrash Shemot Rabbah 23:4, and Targum, beginning of Shir ha-Shirim.)

The articulation of shirah as a profound expression of emunah constitutes an important development not only in Klal Yisrael's historical and even theological development, but also in the character and scope of religious commitment itself. The background to the shirah provides the context for this transformation.

The pesukim in the previous parshah, Bo, particularly accentuate the pivotal impact of yetziat Mitzrayim on specific halachot and, broadly, on numerous halachic institutions. The Ramban (end of Parshat Bo) elaborates and explicates the numerous, ubiquitous references that demonstrate the pervasive influence of the exodus on halachic observance and obligation. While the Ramban assesses the philosophical implications of this pivotal foundation with respect to Divine existence, knowledge, omnipotence, and hashgachah (supervision), Chazal, as Rashi often notes, project a more elemental-basic connection. Yetziat Mitzrayim established the obligatory, contractual, quid pro quo nature of halachic obligation - "al menat kein hozeiti etchem mi-Mitzrayim". It dictated and highlighted that Am Yisrael's exit from slavery was inextricably linked to its servitude to Hashem (avadei Hashem ve-lo avdei Paroh, avadai heim velo avadim le-avadai). The concept of gadol metzuveh ve-oseh mimi she-eino mezuveh ve-oseh (Kiddushin 31a) underscores the principle that obligation (mizvah- being a mezuveh) is a core component in halachic life (notwithstanding Tosafot Kidushin- 31a additional psychological explanation of the greater compliance challenge posed by obligation). In this respect, yetziat Mitzrayim was an indispensable precursor and sine qua non to gilui Shechinah and matan Torah.

In the aftermath of the exodus, keriat yam suf constituted a new phase in Klal Yisrael's faith in Hashem, certainly because it was an awesome religious experience. The Mechilta, also cited by Rashi, notes that a simple hand-maiden experienced Hashem's presence in ways that the most advanced prophets did not (see also Rabbeinu Bechaya ad loc). Commenting on the word "zeh" keili ve-anveihu, Chazal (see Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah ch. 2 and Rashi ad loc) note that the visceral or concrete presence of Hashem was palpable (see also Menachot 53b). Yet, the Talmud focuses on hidur mitzvah and on imatatio Dei, very specialized and advanced expressions of avodat Hashem, precisely in this experiential context!

Evidently, the national epiphany engendered by this inimitable experience of the Divine profoundly redefined the scope and nature of halachic commitment, as well. After all, it triggered a reassessment and enhanced appreciation of Moshe Rabbeinu, the transmitter of Torah (torat Moshe, Moshe emet ve-torato emet), as well. The awe-inspiring events at keriat Yam Suf were not processed narrowly. The illumination of "vayiru ha-am et Hashem vayaaminu ba-Hashem u-ve-moshe avdo" stimulated an enhanced comprehension of the purpose and character of religious life and halachic observance. It clarified the significantly greater role and transcendent content of Hashem's torat Moshe. It reflected the idea that halachic commitment was not merely a contractual quid pro quo for yetziat Mitzrayim, or even merely a mode of manifesting surrender to Hashem, the ultimate sovereign, but that the embrace of mitzvot and halachic institutions as "devar Hashem" was a method of intensifying a substantive bond with Hashem, of more deeply accessing and experiencing His very presence. The gateway to "zeh Keili" was embedded in a "ve-anvehu" (which is both a reaction to and method of "zeh Keili") perspective on halachic life.

This enhanced approach to mizvot and avodat Hashem is particularly embodied by the two themes that the Talmud imputes to "ve-anveihu". Hidur mtizvah expresses an enthusiastic embrace of mitzvot as spiritual opportunities to engage with Hashem. The impulse to esthetically upgrade betokens a posture that perceives mitzvot not merely as formal and symbolic legal gestures, but as intrinsic expressions of avodat Hashem, suffused with value, sanctity and transcendence. Moreover, notwithstanding the uniform and objective character of normative obligation - mishpat ehad yihiyeh lachem-, "hitnaeh lefanai bemitzvot", the adornment of mitzvot, enables, actually encourages appropriate individual expression in Divine worship, an important facet in personal religiosity.

Imatatio Dei equally accentuates the expanded role of halachic norms. It asserts that it is insufficient for one to simply comply with the law, but demands an absolute identification with Hashem and the values promulgated by the Torah. The cultivation of a religious persona based on halachic norms and the capacity to be defined by the pursuit of mah hu rachum af atah rachum reflects spiritual ambition and establishes halachic life not merely as a surrender to Divine sovereignty, but as the primary mechanism to experience Hashem's presence and embracing the Divine will. The Talmud's dual (but really two-sided) vision of "ve-anveihu" constitutes not a sharp contrast to, but a singularly ambitious means to attain the elusive, yet indispensable goal of "zeh Keili", the subject of shirah.

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