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Message from Hazzan Steve

January 12, 2022

Beshalach – Wonder and Awe

מִֽי־כָמֹ֤כָה בָּֽאֵלִם֙ יְהוָ֔ה מִ֥י כָּמֹ֖כָה נֶאְדָּ֣ר בַּקֹּ֑דֶשׁ נוֹרָ֥א תְהִלֹּ֖ת עֹ֥שֵׂה פֶֽלֶא׃

MiChamocha ba-eilim YHVH, mikamocha ne’dar bakodesh, norah t’hilot, osei feleh.

Who is like Thee, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like Thee, majestic in holiness, sublime in glorious deeds, doing wonders.

(Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s translation in “God in Search of Man”, page 49)

This text, at the very middle of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, is familiar, included in our morning and evening liturgy every day. These prayers move thematically from creation to redemption to revelation, and this bit is the redemption piece. You probably know some catchy tunes for MiChamocha, and some of those tunes may be appropriate for this very primal redemption text.

But look again. This extraordinary verse does not say a thing about redemption. It is our response to redemption, or more precisely our reaction to perceiving the utter irrelevance of the normal forces of nature in God’s redemption of us at the Sea.

The first part, the MiChamocha part, is our bursting with enthusiasm, acknowledging that God is not like anything anywhere. Our explanation, of a sort, for that outburst is the ending: Norah tehilot, Osei Feleh.

Norah comes from yirah, meaning either “fear” or “awe”, from a root of “trembling”, expanded to something like “causing astonishment and awe”. Heschel says “Fear is the anticipation and expectation of evil or pain …. Awe, on the other hand, is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery”. Given the redemptive context, in our phrase - “Norah tehilot” – this must be awe, not fear.

Tehilot is from Halal, and the original sense is “clear” or “brilliant”, and by reference to tones or sounds we get the meaning of “praise” or “songs of praise”.

That leaves “Osei Feleh”. Feleh comes from a root meaning “distinguishing” or “separating”, expanded to mean “great” or “extraordinary”. More familiar is the closely related word “niflaot”, translated as “miracles” or “wonders”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stresses that feleh means an act that is independent of the “existing order of things”. Rambán, also called Nachmanides, commenting on another verse about our redemption from Egypt, says “there is no such thing as the natural course of events”. Think about that for a second – “there is no such thing as the natural course of events”.

Let’s put this all together: Our response to the overturning of what we take to be the natural order of things, leading to our redemption, is to sing out that God is awesome and is doing miraculous things.

Why do we sing this in the morning and evening prayers, every day? Heschel stresses the continual need to experience wonder, lest we take things for granted and lose our “ability to understand the meaning of God”, and that awe is the “root of faith”. We require the repetition, I suppose because we are human.

May we wake each morning with “radical amazement”, keep wonder and awe with us as we go about each day, and welcome every evening with astonishment and gratitude.

With blessings for a week of health and peace,

Hazzan Steve חזן שלמה זלמן עיט מרגלין

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