By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
WHY G-D IS CLOSEST WHEN HE FEELS FARTHEST AWAY
Then Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing …
As if with one voice, the commentaries wonder at the future tense employed here by the Torah. The meaning of the verse is clear: then, after the splitting of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, the Jews sang their praises of the Master of the World who had provided their miraculous salvation.
If so, why the future tense?
All the commentaries begin with Rashi: Then, when [the nation] saw the miracle, it felt inspired to sing. But what has Rashi added? Is it not obvious that their song of praise was inspired by the events through which they had been saved?
Perhaps we can find a clue in the structure of our daily prayers. The weekday Amidah, the standing prayer, is divided into three distinct sections. The first three blessings are expressions of praise, through which we acknowledge that we are standing before the One who hears supplications and has the power to answer them. The final three blessings are expressions of gratitude, wherein we thank Hashem for listening to and considering our entreaties.
The body of the Amidah, the thirteen central blessings, are expressions of request, wherein we ask Hashem to bestow upon us the basic necessities of life so that we can serve Him by studying His Torah and upholding His commandments. By recognizing that G-d is the source of all blessing — of intelligence, health, sustenance, justice, and all things physical and spiritual — we remind ourselves of our own responsibility to direct our lives toward fulfilling the higher purpose for which we were created, and we turn our attention inward to assess whether or not we are living up to our individual potentials.
Of this central group of petitions, the final blessing poses something of a curiosity. Shema koleinu – Listen to our voices, we cry out, and accept our prayers with favor and mercy. But is the value of asking Hashem to listen to our prayers? If He is already listening, then this request is superfluous; if He is not listening, then it is pointless. Moreover, why is it positioned at the end of our list of requests? Presumably we should ask G-d to listen before we begin to ask, not after we have finished asking?
I heard a variation of the following from Rav Dovid Gottleib: If I ask my friend to lend me ten dollars, and he lends me ten dollars, naturally I respond by saying, “Thank you.” However, if my friend tells me he doesn’t have the money, but he will get it for me, I also respond by saying, “Thank you.”
In the first case, I’m expressing appreciation for having gotten what I want. But in the second case, even though I still don’t have the ten dollars, I express my appreciation nonetheless. And in this second case, my expression of thanks describes a higher level of gratitude, not merely for having gotten what I want but for my friend’s interest, concern, and effort, which ultimately mean more to me than mere money.
Similarly, in the blessing of Shema koleinu, we are not asking the Almighty for what we have already requested; rather, we are asking Him to allow us to recognize His involvement in our lives. More than the things we have requested, we want to feel that Hashem cares about us, that He is responsive to our needs and our desires — and we want the accompanying confidence that when Hashem withholds what we want it is because the fulfillment of these requests is not in our own spiritual best interest.
At no time are we closer to G-d than when He is in the process of granting our petitions, for it is then that He is most actively involved in our lives. The moment our requests are answered, we once again feel a sense of independence, which is a manifestation of the illusion that we can survive and prosper without the grace of G-d.
If we apply this principle to the splitting of the sea, we can understand that the Jews had two different ways they could have praised Hashem for their salvation. They might have expressed their gratitude after they had been saved, seeing then that they were truly secure from the threat of the Egyptian army. However, a higher expression of gratitude would have been to sing the praises of Hashem as they were passing through the sea, for it would have been at that moment, with the walls of water towering above them and Pharaoh’s chariots bearing down upon them, that Hashem was closer to them than ever before. In that instant, their trust in the inevitability of their salvation inspired a song like no other, describing their gratitude for the greatest gift any human soul could desire — true spiritual intimacy with the Divine.
Nevertheless, for the Jews to stop and sing in the midst of their flight to safety would have shown needless dependence upon Hashem’s miraculous intervention. Per force, they waited until their survival was assured. But the Torah testifies to the feelings that motivated their song. Then, when they were still fleeing from the Egyptians between the walls of water, the Children of Israel would sing. Even if their mouths did not form the words until later, their hearts were already inspired to sing in the greatest possible expression of gratitude and closeness to their Creator.