Pharaoh changed his mind about setting the Israelites free. He dispatched his troops to try and catch up with them on their way to the Red Sea. Miraculously, however, the waters of the Red Sea parted at just the right moment, allowing the people of Israel to walk in safety to the other side. When the Egyptian troops chased after them, the waters returned to their previous state and their pursuers were drowned.
The Israelites offered thanks for this miraculous escape in the form of a great song, the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15), which lies at the heart of this week’s reading. (For this reason, this Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shirah, the “Sabbath of the Song.”)
One of the song’s verses was of particular interest to our ancient rabbis. The verse reads: “The Lord is my strength and might, and He has saved me; this is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.”
The word “this” had great significance for the ancient rabbis. It was not just a simple pronoun or adjective, like this in English; often, it implied that the person speaking was actually pointing to something. So, for example, when God tells Moses, “This month shall be for you the first month of the year” (Exod 12:1), an ancient midrash asserts that God actually pointed with His finger to the new moon. Similarly here, when the Israelites said “this is my God,” the rabbis said that the people actually saw God in front of them—and not just one or two Israelites, but the whole nation. Every man and woman was elevated to a level of prophetic vision higher than that of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, since these and the other prophets “saw” God only in the form of a vision or likeness, but at that particular moment, the Israelites all saw God standing right in front of them.
But the same verse posed an interpretive problem for the rabbis. True enough, the God whom the Israelites saw in front of them was indeed “my God,” in the words of the song, “my strength and might, and He has saved me.” But how did they know that this God was the same God worshiped by their ancestors, as the verse itself implies: “the God of my father, and I will exalt Him”? Certainly God wasn’t wearing a sign or some other form of identification saying, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” So how did they know that this was indeed the same God?
The midrashic answer is surprising. They didn’t.
Rather, what happened was that, when all the Israelites witnessed the miracle that saved their lives, they sang, “This is my God and I will glorify Him.” Hearing their parents singing this, their own children then chimed in, “The God of my father and I will exalt Him.”
To this ancient midrash the modern scholar Martin Buber gave a new twist. When Jewish children are growing up, he wrote, their parents tell them about God in ways that a child can understand. This is “the God of my father and I will exalt Him.” But there is always a gap between what they are told about God and their own lives. In the course of time, however, a child grows to adulthood. Only then can he or she begin to acquire a true knowledge of God. Indeed, the goal of Judaism is to allow us to stand in truth before God—to reach the moment when we can say not only “the God of my father,” but as well, “This is my God.”