Parashat Beshalach / Visions, Real and Imagined

Referring to this week’s reading, Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16), the midrash provides a contrast to both Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s perceptions of God’s image.

In the first chapter of Ezekiel, referred to as Ma’aseh Merkaba (Vision of the Chariot), the prophet says he “saw visions of God,” when he was “among the captives by the river Chebar” (Ezekiel 1:1). This is the most detailed description any prophet gives of God; Ezekiel describes God’s chariot, the animals bearing it and God’s very image.

Isaiah is also privileged to experience a vision of God’s image, but only offers a brief description of it (Isaiah 6:1-4). The difference between the two prophets’ visions is explained by Rava: “Isaiah has seen everything that Ezekiel saw. Whereas Ezekiel is like a villager who saw the king, Isaiah is like a city-dweller who saw the king” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Hagiga 13b).

According to Rava, while their visions are identical, the description the two prophets give of that experience differs because the degree of excitement they feel as a result reflects the level of intimacy each have individually with God: The city-dwelling Isaiah is used to seeing the king every day, but Ezekiel is in exile from the Land of Israel and far from the metaphorical city where God “dwells.”

Rashi interprets the significance of this “geographical” distance thus: “A member of the royal family who grew up in a palace, Isaiah feels no urge to describe the entire vision of God’s image; unlike a villager, such a city-dweller who sees the king often does not experience any particular panic or fear of wonder in his presence.” Since Ezekiel does experience those emotions, he feels the urge to provide an elaborate, in-depth and dramatic description of the divine image. For his part, Isaiah is used to such visions and provides only a terse description.

Referring to this week’s reading, Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 - 17:16), the midrash provides a contrast to both Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s perceptions of God’s image. After God splits the Red Sea, Moses and the Israelites cross it and see the Egyptians drowning, their reaction is to sing a song of praise to God: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; ... this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father’s God, and I will exalt Him. The Lord is a man of war, The Lord is His name” (Exodus 15:1-3). The Israelites use poetic language to describe a great miracle: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea, and his chosen captains are sunk in the Red Sea” (Exod. 15:4).

The first three verses of Shirat Hayam (The Song of the Sea) contain additional information about the Almighty, to whom Moses and the Israelites address their song: “... this is my God, and I will glorify Him.” The sages’ reading of the words “this is” leads them to conclude that the Israelites actually see God as they praise him – they are pointing to him. Although the vision of God is so clear and close that they actually point to him, the Israelites do not describe his image per se, but prefer to make a rather vague declaration, “The Lord is a man of war.” They then add, “The Lord is His name,” which seems to render superfluous any physical description of the Almighty.

Referring to the proclamation, “this is my God,” Rabbi Eliezer declares: “How do we know that what a handmaiden saw at the Red Sea far exceeded what Isaiah and Ezekiel saw? Because it is written, ‘and by the ministry of the prophets have I used similitudes’ (Hosea 12:11) and ‘the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God’ (Ezek. 1:1)” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Parashat Behalach, Masechta de Shira: 3). Hosea explains that by means of all the Hebrew prophets, God “used similitudes”: that is, he shows them only an image of himself without revealing anything more directly to them. Even Ezekiel, who provides an elaborate description of the godhead, can only say he “saw visions of God” – visions, rather than God himself in all his glory.

Comparing Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s perception of the image and visions of the Almighty with the Israelites’ declaration “this is my God,” in Shirat Hayam, Rabbi Eliezer concludes that an Israelite handmaiden who only recently left a life of bondage in Egypt would have seen at the Red Sea what neither of the two prophets was privileged to see. In contrast with the elaborate descriptions they provide, Rabbi Eliezer emphasizes the striking terseness of the Israelites’ depiction of God. From the language they use, it is obvious that they are not trying to conceal anything about the divine image; they simply feel no need to provide any details of it because God is there with them. They perhaps are residents of the palace who often see the king (i.e., God); since he is there before them, it is enough for them to point and declare, “this is my God.”

The Israelites’ perception of the Almighty is thus very different from that of either Isaiah or Ezekiel. It is devoid of the masks of metaphor or imagery – it is a vision that requires no verbal description of the experience of actually seeing God. Furthermore, the Israelites at the Red Sea experience no panic; they feel no fear, no wonder or urge to explicitly describe everything they see. For them, witnessing the divine presence directly is as basic a fact as the presence of a human being standing beside them.

The chief protagonist of this threefold description of God’s image is language. Although it serves as a mediator of the religious experience, it is clear that the very proximity to that experience does not permit a more elaborate description of God’s image. Language is a tool that is at the disposal of those who live in the margins, residing in the periphery.

Therefore, as they stand before a godhead that is devoid of metaphor or imagery, the Israelites have no need for language; all they have to do is to point to God with their fingers. However, Isaiah, the “city-dweller,” needs language to describe God, although his description is not very elaborate. For his part, Ezekiel, who attests to the fact that he is in exile from the Land of Israel “among the captives,” finds himself in a place where he does not expect to experience a vivid divine revelation. Therefore, he uses language to explain to his interlocutors – and perhaps even to himself as well – the immensity of the experience he has just undergone. As we draw closer to the intimate, burning core of religious experience, language diminishes until, in the very face of God, it disappears altogether.

Perhaps the above explanation sheds life on another problem in the Book of Exodus: Whereas in Parashat Beshalach, the handmaiden at the Red Sea experiences a more vivid vision of God than either Isaiah or Ezekiel, Moses’ request, “Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory” (Exod. 33:18) in Parashat Ki Tissa (to be read in five weeks), is not something that God agrees to.

In the beginning of Exodus, Moses declared, “I am not a man of words” (Exod. 4:10). From that point onward, until the very beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy, where it is written “These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel” (Deuteronomy 1:1) – Moses undergoes a protracted process. It extends over three books of the Pentateuch and entails committing a sin related to the power of speech. Only after undergoing that process does Moses complete the metamorphosis and become a “man of words.” To complete that process, it is essential that he not see the face of God and remain outside, far from the burning center and close to the words.