Desecration and Declaration by Danny Shlian


A common Midrashic technique is to relate two seemingly unrelated stories or sections in Tanach, often on the basis of a shared word or motif, with the implicit goal of making a thematic connection between the sections. One Midrash on Parashat BeShalach is unique in that it relates an account in this week’s Parashah to an event not actually recorded in the Pesukim of the Torah:


Az Yashir Moshe,” “Then Moshe sang” (Shemot 15:1). What is the meaning of the word “Az,” “Then?” With [the word] “Az,” God transformed the land into sea in the generation of Enosh, as the Pasuk states, “Az Huchal Likro BeSheim Hashem,” “Then it was begun to call out in the name of Hashem” (BeReishit 4:26). For us, He has transformed the sea into land, so we praise him with [the word] “Az” (Midrash Tanchuma BeShalach 12).


On a textual level, the above Midrash deals with the unusual word introducing the song recited by Moshe and the Jews after their miraculous escape from Par’oh’s army through the split Yam Suf. It then relates this incident to one entirely absent from the text of BeReishit. According to a number of Midrashim, in the days of Enosh, Adam’s grandson, one third of the world was flooded. A closer look at the text of one of these Midrashim may indicate the connection between the account of Shirat HaYam and the Midrashic story of the generation of Enosh:


Rabi Yosi asks: Why does the verse [in the Aseret HaDibrot] mention “Elohim Acheirim,” “other gods?” So as not to give an excuse to the nations of the world to claim that if the other gods had been called in [God’s] name, they would have had some use. Indeed, they have already been called by God’s name, and found useless. When did this occur? In the days of Enosh, the son of Sheit, as the verse states: “Az Huchal Likro BeSheim Hashem.” At that instant, the ocean arose and flooded one third of the world. God said to the people: You have created a new entity and called yourselves by My name. I, too, will create a new entity, and call myself by my name, as another verse states, “HaKorei LeMei HaYam VaYishpecheim Al Penei HaAretz—Hashem Shemo,” “He calls for the waters of the sea and pours them on the face of the earth—Hashem is His Name” (Amos 5:8) (Mechilta DeRabi Yishmael, Yitro, BaChodesh 6).


This Midrash is clear about the sin that brought about the flood, a precursor to the larger one that would occur seven generations later in the time of Noach. It claims that the world’s people began to invoke God’s name in the most profane of contexts: investing manmade deities with Divinity. This misdeed, which is tied into a Pasuk in BeReishit, was punished with a flood. Fascinatingly, power over the waters, according to the textual hook in Amos, is God’s way of declaring “Hashem Shemo.” That phrase, of course, appears prominently in Shirat HaYam: “Hashem Ish Milchamah, Hashem Shemo,” “God is a man of war, Hashem is his name” (Shemot 15:3). This connection, perhaps, is key to unraveling the Midrash’s link between the generation of Enosh and the song at the sea.

Rav Sa’adiah Ga’on (BeReishit 4:26 s.v. Az Huchal) and some versions of Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Az Huchal) assume that in the Pasuk about Enosh in BeReishit, “Az Huchal Likro BeSheim Hashem,” the word “Huchal” stems from Chilulm, disgrace: the name of God was degraded. Although Ibn Ezra (ad loc. s.v. Huchal) and many other commentators, particularly those with a more Peshat-oriented approach, assume that the verse’s connotations are positive, the definition of “Huchal” as desecration fits well with the Midrash’s approach. Rambam, certainly, views the generation of Enosh as negative. The famous first Halachot in his Hilchot Avodah Zarah describe Enosh’s generation as the one to initiate the process toward idolatry by ascribing demigod-like status to physical structures.

The point of the Midrash’s allusion to Dor Enosh, then, can be viewed as a larger message about Chilul Hashem. In order for God’s reputation to “recover” from the incredible blow it was dealt by its profanation, God deemed it necessary to flood the world. Water, of course, is one of the most powerful forces in nature and is a perfect way of demonstrating might. We need hardly look to the descriptions of His power in Tehillim 29, which mention water no fewer than three times, nor to the Gemara in Bava Batra 74b of God’s mastery over the Saro Shel Yam, the “master of the sea,” to understand this point. When God’s name is made so inexcusably cheap, drastic measures are required to reaffirm it.

Shirat HaYam, then, was the polar opposite of the events of the generation of Enosh. Bnei Yisrael, now identified solely with God, were saved as God demonstrated his mastery over the water in full, public view. Instead of the reparatory function that water served in the Midrashic account of the first flood, where the sea overcame the land, God here has the land overwhelm the sea, as noted by the Midrash Tanchuma. This, under the circumstances, is the greatest Kiddush Hashem imaginable. Shirah is the immediate and natural reaction to this miraculous occurrence. Indeed, if there is one theme that runs throughout Shirat HaYam, it is the glory and majesty of God as expressed through the water. The Israelites spontaneously open their mouths in prayer and praise to God, distinguished clearly and obviously as “Hashem Shemo.” The events of the splitting of Yam Suf function almost as a correction of the events of Enosh’s generation.

However, this glorification of God’s name is not a passive occurrence. God does not declare “Hashem Shemo” here; Bnei Yisrael do. Even a powerful and mighty God would be theologically absurd if not for human acknowledgment and involvement. The people’s role in finalizing the publicizing of God’s name cannot be overstated. Moreover, the people’s responsibility to praise God certainly applies in times of clear and open revelation of His greatness, but it does not end there. The Israelites’ embracement of their role as the ambassadors of Sheim Hashem continues to evolve and mature after Shirat HaYam, as they are given commandments which call not for fear of His might, but relationships between man and God, and man and man. Nonetheless, it is clear that the Midrash views Shirat HaYam as a reversal of Dor Enosh: “Hashem Shemo,” here, is not a response to desecration, but a proud declaration.

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