Friday, January 10, 2014

One Moment--אז

Triumphantly marching out of Egypt, the children of Israel set their eyes on a new future, as they follow their leader, Moses, into the desert. The drama of פרשת בשלח builds up like a thriller, with פרעה, still suffering from his loss, mounting his chariot to chase his escaped slaves. בני ישראל, looking ahead, see only a blue sea in the distance; turning around, though, they witness the approaching Egyptian army. Panic pervades the camp. Screaming to משה and God at the same time, they ask for a sign not unlike the one they had seen in מצרים, and suddenly the sea splits before them. As the stream of Israelites pass through to safety, they turn around once again, but this time to enjoy their enemy drowning in the Sea "סוס ורוכבו רמה בים".

As בני ישראל finally breathe the new air of a free people, they automatically begin to sing a song of praise to their savior; the תורה, though, chooses a strange word to introduce this שירה - "ישיר משה 'אז' ". 'Then', Moses and the children of Israel sang. What is this אז? Why was this word chosen as a prelude to the song, when the Torah has many common grammatical openings for such a passage: וישר משה, 'And he sang' or בעת ההיא ישיר משה...'At that time...', why אז?

The Midrash, sensitive to the choice of words, offers us some insight, although, in a perplexing manner:
"אמר רבי עקיבא, בשעה שאמרו ישראל אז ישיר, לבש הקב"ה חלוק של תפארת שהיו חקוקין עליו כל אז שבתורה: אז תשמח בתולה, אז ידלג כאיל פסח, וכו. וכיון שחטאו חזר וקרעו שנאמרבצע אמרתו. ועתיד הקב"ה להחזירו שנאמר אז ימלא שחוק פינו.
" At the time when Israel sang in praise, God adorned himself in a cloak embedded in it all the אז's in the Torah. When they sinned, He ripped it up. However, in the future, He will return to wear it once again."

What is the meaning of this strange metaphor? Why would the word אז embody the relationship between עם ישראל and `ה? In order to decipher the meaning of the Midrash we must analyze the true meaning of אז. In reality an אז is a moment in time. "Then", at that second, an incident occurred. What incident? That depends on the person, or, in our case, בני ישראל. Rabbi Joseph Baumol once explained that our lives are really made up of a few momentous occasions, a few אז's. The difference between a simpleton and a great man lies only in the number of great moments he encounters, or creates. The simpleton at the end of his life will look back to those few incidents where he shined; his marriage, children, possibly a great business deal, but all in all, not much in which to revel. An איש גדול on the other hand will be able to magically adorn his past years with beautiful אז's.

The analogy applies in the religious realm as well as the worldly. The true difference between the תפלה of an average Jew and that of a pious one once again depends on the אז. In an average שמונה עשרה, with its nineteen blessings, and supplications, a person, if lucky, will have one moment where he feels he is speaking to Hashem. So sad is our state that the poskim maintained one should not repeat his תפלה if it was said without proper כוונה. The pious one, though, from the initial request of שפתי תפתח`ה to the closing praise עושה שלום במרומיו, is in a constant dialogue with his creator, raising himself to unlimited heights. This then is the power of the אז, the capitalization of your most sacred moments.

Understanding anew this concept of אז, we can fully appreciate the greatness of the Israelites after קריעת ים סוף. When the Midrash exclaimed "At the time whenבני ישראל sang songs of praise to God, they were equal to Moses, and Moses was equal to them," it meant to say that at that moment, one of the greatest אז's in their lives, they had the ability to turn toward their redeemer and praise Him . That indeed warranted the label of "שקול כמשה רבינו", equal to Moses their leader.

If we return to our initial Midrash , the words of חז"ל radiate the profound event. That crucial moment when the children of Israel witnessed the demise of the Egyptian army, a natural reaction would be to celebrate, dance, and embrace one another. But without hesitation they turned to `ה and sang a beautiful song. הקב"ה could do nothing but enwrap Himself in all of the great moments, forming a cloak which would adorn Him day and night. Unfortunately, with the subsequent sinning of בני ישראל, the cloak ripped up severing the unique bond between Himself and His people.

The Midrash continues with one last message; " כל פרקמטיא של משה רבינו לא היתה אלא באז. הצלת נפשו..., קנטורו..., אף הפרשת ערים באז- אז יבדיל משה שלש ערים." In contradistinction to Israel, Moses maintained the spiritual level of "אז" throughout his life. Even the most mundane act as setting up ערי מקלט, was accomplished as an `עבד ה. Moses lived this life with such intensity and devotion that he was included in Rambam's typology as one of the four (himself and the Avot) 'unattainables'.

When we look towards the unreachable goal of Moses, or even attaining the level בני ישראל achieved, we often become depressed. The final line in the Midrash, though, encourages us not to despair. In the future `ה will redeem us, and once again adorn his cloak of many אז's leading His people to the ultimate ."אז ימלא שחוק פינו ולשוננו רנה"--גאולה