One Must Accept It Joyously

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




One Must Accept It Joyously


Summarized by Avi Shmidman

Adapted by Dov Karoll



            The exodus from Egypt is deeply ingrained in our collective consciousness.  The splitting of the Red Sea and the song of praise are particularly salient events in that process.


            The Gemara (Sanhedrin 94a) cites two cases of praise by one party which brought to light the fact that another had not given praise.  The Gemara opens by citing the case of Chizkiyahu, who did not sing praise for the salvation God brought upon him.  Instead, the earth itself sang out to God.  The Gemara cites a verse from Yeshayahu (24:16): "From the fringe of the earth we have heard songs, glory to the righteous…"  The Gemara then cites another example: Moshe and the entire Jewish people did not give the proper praise to God, until Yitro came along and exclaimed, "Barukh ha-Shem," "Blessed be God" (Shemot 18:10).


            How is this to be understood?  Did not Moshe lead the people of Israel in Song at the Sea?  What does it mean that they did not properly sing to God until Yitro came along?


            One answer seemingly is contained in the Gemara's explanation of what Yitro added.  At the sea they may have sang to God, but they did not exclaim, "Barukh ha-Shem."  Yitro's praise of God was more focused on God's greatness, and this was an element that was less present in the song of Moshe and the people at the sea.


            But perhaps one could suggest another approach regarding what was lacking in the Song at the Sea.  What is the most central element of the Song?  Presumably it is the first line of Moshe's song, the element which constitutes the entirety of the Song of Miriam: "I will sing to God for He has triumphed gloriously; He has thrown the horse and the rider into the sea" (15:1, 21).  (The formulation is only slightly different in the two places, with an adjustment of the grammatical form from the first person to the second, but the content remains the same.)


            In both formulations, the relation between the song and the triumph is achieved through the use of the word "ki," translated above as "for."  According to the Gemara (Shevu'ot 49b), the word "ki" in the Torah can have any of four different meanings: if, perhaps, rather and because.  However, the word has a fifth sense, equivalent to the Hebrew word "asher," which would be translated into English as "that," "which," or "who," depending on the context.


            In the case of our verse, there are two possibilities as to what "ki" can mean.  It can mean either "I will sing to God, who has triumphed gloriously" (the fifth definition), or "I will sing to God because He has triumphed gloriously" (the fourth definition).  Onkelos follows the former, while Targum Yonatan follows the latter.


            If one takes the latter approach, the problematic aspect of the Song at the Sea is understandable.  The Song is conditional.  It is an expression of praise to God based on the glorious triumph.  But what would have happened if the people of Israel had suffered crushing defeat rather than glorious triumph?  Would the people then not have sung to God?  Would they not have recognized this as being an act of Divine intervention as well?


            Such conditional song lacks two crucial aspects of the service of God.  First, it reflects on a deficiency in yir'at ha-Shem, or awe of God.  The Mishna (Berakhot 9:5, 54a) states, "One must bless God for the bad just one blesses Him for the good."  The Gemara (60b) seeks clarification of this statement.  It first suggests that the same blessing is recited on each occurrence, but it rejects this explanation.  The Gemara then suggests that the similarity is not in the content of the blessing, but rather in the joy with which one should accept God's verdict.  Just as one should rejoice over positive verdicts from God, so too one should rejoice over negative ones.  This demands a very high level of awe of God, the ability to accept everything He provides.  As such, an inability to sing at defeat indicates deficient awe.


            Second, one who is able to sing only for the good is lacking in ahavat ha-Shem, love of God.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Berakhot 10:3), in citing the ruling of the Gemara mentioned above, categorizes the acceptance of divine decrees of evil as reflecting great love for God.


            For two thousand years, Jews were oppressed and persecuted in many lands and in many ways.  Nonetheless, we know of countless songs they sang throughout the generations.  In recent generations, we have merited the establishment of the State of Israel, and with it we have once again have had the opportunity to sing about triumphant victory on a national level.


            However, this positive development has been accompanied by a diminishing ability to sing to God in all situations.  We are now used to singing for triumphant victory, but when tragedy befalls, we cannot open our mouths.


            The dangers of such conditional turning to God are twofold. First, if tragedy strikes, there can be an abandonment of Torah and Judaism.  But the ramifications of such an approach are grave even if this is not the case.  If we are unable to sing to God when things are bad, this reflects deficient yir'at ha-Shem and ahavat ha-Shem, even if we do sing when things are good.


            We need to make sure to sing to God with the same joyful acceptance of the divine decree, whether the decree is good or bad.  May we merit singing on occasions of triumphant victory, while still knowing how to praise God even if our situation is reversed.


[This sicha was originally delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Beshalach 5761 (2001).]