In the first part of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea, the famed Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel writes poignantly about his grandfather and father. His grandfather, Dodya Feig, was a Chasidic Jew, while his father, Shlomo, was a more modern, secular sort.
Writes Wiesel: "From my father I learned to speak, from my grandfather I learned to sing."
Isn't this true for so many of us? Aren't these the two main tributaries of our lives?
In my mind, the latter notion speaks of the poetry of life — our noblest desires and deepest aspirations; the former, on the other hand, speaks of the more prosaic aspects of existence — the sheer quiddity and facticity of the everyday.
But it is the song of life, indeed, the song of this Shabbat, that I want to focus upon. This week marks a special Shabbat: Shabbat Shira — the Sabbath of Song.
What is its source?
As the Jews were leaving the burden of the oppressive Egyptian regime, they were confounded — caught, as it were, in a vice. In front of them was the yam suf, the Sea of Reeds, and behind them, Pharaoh's chariot cavalry, the Egyptian equivalent of a squadron of tanks. Ultimately, God parted the waters, and passage was assured.
Upon crossing to safety, the Jewish people gathered together and sang a special song honoring the event. Hence, Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.
But, our tradition notes, it was only after one person stuck his toe into the water, waded his way into the sea and inspired others to follow that God was willing to perform what only God can do. Or to put it another way: It was only after this leader made his "strike" that God made His "split."
The name of this person was Nachshon ben Aminadav. It's his name that fascinates me, and it's the source for an extraordinary teaching. When the Torah adds full genealogy, the latter part of the phrasing becomes, as it were, a last name.
"Aminadav" literally means, "my people who volunteer."
This name is telling us that you cannot simply sit back and demand that things happen. You have to put a toe in, wade in — sometimes, even dive in — to arrive at an outcome.
There is an aspect of this song from Exodus that seems particularly relevant for the modern world. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik wrote that the crescendo phrase of the song at the sea is: Zeh Eli v'anveihu — "This is my God and I will glorify Him"; Elohei avi va'a'rom'menhu — "The God of My father and I will exalt Him."
Soloveitchik deduced that the verse is speaking about two aspects of Jewishness. "The God of my father" means that I am a Jew because I was born a Jew. I am part of the same people as my father and mother. It bespeaks a fact, an ontological condition. The former expression, "This is my God" (emphasis on "my") is not so much a description of an inherent condition, but it suggests an act of ownership. It is an existential statement — that is, a way for me to be in the world.
Or to put this in more pedestrian terms: It's one thing to be born into the chosen people, and quite another to model behavior and fashion a life in that allows you to become a member of that people. When asked what part of speech the word "Jew" is, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that it is more a verb than anything else.
"Belonging is no substitute for being," he wrote.
On this Shabbat Shira, let us take to heart the notion that it is only by owning our Jewish journey — engaging in the symphony of Jewish values and harmonizing with the wit and wisdom of our people and their tradition — that we, too, can merit a life of song and poetry.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.