The Sfas Emes for procrastinators

"The Parting of the Red Sea," by Marc Chagall

A teaching of Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, from Sfas Emes, Parshat Beshalach.

Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song…   אָז יָשִׁיר מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת   Exodus 15:1

Our sages tell us, “One who recites the Shema must mention the splitting of the Sea of Reeds in the Emet veyatziv prayer, but if he does not, he does not have to repeat the Shema. However, if he does not mention the Exodus from Egypt, he must repeat the Shema” (1). Why do we need to mention the splitting of the Sea of Reeds? Because it was due to the splitting of the sea that Israel came to have faith in G!d, as it says, “And they believed in G!d and in His servant Moses” (2). And it was through their faith that they merited to say the Song at the Sea, and the Shekhina rested upon them… Likewise must you purify your heart before you pray.

The matter can be seen in our verse, Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang “then,” because the essential purpose of the redemption had been completed (3). For the key point is that the Children of Israel were created to bear witness to the Creator, as it is written, “I have formed this people for Myself; they shall tell my praise” (4). Through the exile in Egypt they were purified in the iron furnace to become vessels to sing before G!d. So when the redemption was completed, they opened their mouths and sang. And so they believed.

When they went out from Egypt they did not understand the benefit of the exile. Only afterwards did they understand that they had been made into vessels. As written in the midrash, “My dove in the cleft of the rock, in the secret of the cliff, show me your appearance, let me hear your voice”; that is, at first they were in the cleft of the rock and the secret of the cliff, their potential not yet made manifest, but when they went out it was to reveal their own potential, to make their voice heard (5).

And there is an aspect of this in every day: every day you must set right your own inclinations and be like that dove, in order to fulfill the verse. Only afterward, when you have merited to purify your heart, can you recite the Shema and pray…

A verse from Psalms also has something to teach us on this: “He brought me up out of the gruesome pit…and put in my mouth a new song of praise to our G!d” (6). “New” means that it forever contains the power of renewal, and it can never be forgotten from the souls of Israel. It is not for nothing that the sages said to recite the Song of the Sea every day, for the faith that the Children of Israel had [at the Sea] was that the redemption would be for the generations, as it says [in the Song], “G!d will be my salvation,” on which our sages comment, “Just as G!d was my salvation in the past, so shall G!d be my salvation in the future” (7).

And this song and such cleaving to G!d have been implanted in the souls of Israel forever, but before the exodus from Egypt they were not able to manifest it, while after the exodus this desire [to cleave to G!d] was revealed. This is the meaning of the verse, “Our soul has escaped like a bird out of the hunters’ trap” (8). In Egypt our very desire was imprisoned, as it is written, “Release my soul from prison, so that I may give thanks to Your name” (9).

And so on every Shabbat there is redemption and freedom to the soul and its desire; thus it is called “a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt,” and so “It is good to give thanks to G!d” in the Psalm for Shabbat (10).


1) Shemot Rabbah 22:3      2) Exodus 14:31     3) Exodus 15:1; see Shemot Rabbah 23     4) Isaiah 43:21    5) Shemot Rabbah 21:5     6) Psalms 40:3-4    7) Mechilta Parshat HaShira 3, on Exodus 15:2     8) Psalms 124:7     9) Psalms 142:8     10) Psalms 92:2

Jeff says…

There are a lot of deep and subtle things happening in this teaching, but what strikes me most is the Sfas Emes’ identification of exile with the lack of desire to cleave to G!d, and of redemption with discovering that desire. Both happen within us. Shabbat, prayer, Torah…all these things can be the fulfillment of our desire to experience G!d, but first they act to reveal the desire already waiting within us. May we remember the Sfas Emes next time we say “I’d like to pray (or learn or keep Shabbat) but I just don’t feel it…”

This entry was posted in Beshalach, Hasidic Masters, Parsha, Shabbat Shirah, Special Shabbatot, Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger/ Sfas Emes. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s