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Praising Hashem - Parashat Beshalach 5780, February 7, 2020

This week’s parasha, Parashat Beshalach, presents the splitting of the Red Sea. The Torah describes the miracle of the salvation of b’nei yisrael who witnessed their oppressors, the Egyptians, drowning while they remained safe on the far shore. In response to this miracle, Moshe led the Jewish People in shirat hayam – the Song of the Sea – a song of praise of Hashem for His miraculously saving b’nei yisrael.

In Masechet Megilah 10b, the 
gemara cites a well-known midrash – “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but G-d silenced the angels, saying, ‘The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!’”

Upon examination, this
gemara is difficult to understand. If it was improper for the angels to sing praises in the face of the death G-d’s creation (the Egyptians), why were Moshe and b’nei yisrael not subject to criticism for singing praises in the face of their destruction?
To answer this question, let us consider a law in a different context – how to prioritize blessings over food.

Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch, (
siman 211:1) discusses the case of a person who has multiple fruits on his plate, all requiring the same blessing – bor’e p’ri ha’etz. On which fruit should he make the bracha? The Shulchan Aruch explains that for the purposes of blessing, fruit is prioritized from three perspectives, in descending order: fruit that is on the list of the seven species from Israel (grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates) followed by fruit that is in its whole form followed by fruit that a person likes. If a person has grapes and cherries on his plate, he should make the blessing on grapes. If he has cherries and a slice of orange on his plate, he should make the blessing on a cherry. If he has a slice of apple and a slice of orange, he should make the blessing on whichever one he likes better.

What is the foundational principle of this law? On what basis should we prioritize a fruit of the seven species? On what basis should we prioritize a whole fruit over a preferred fruit?
Our class suggested that this principle is rooted in an understanding of food-blessings. A blessing on food is a praise of Hashem – a recognition that His will yields to us the benefit of sustenance. We further suggested that when praising Hashem with a bracha, the halacha demands that we use the object that will yield the most rich praise of Him because of what is associated with that object. The best object is one that is universally associated with His providence – fruits of the Land of Israel where Hashem’s Providence is most evident. Short of that, the halacha prefers for us to use an object that is the product of His will – a whole fruit. Short of that, the halacha prefers for us to use an object that we, from our subjective framework, like the most.

What emerges from this analysis is that praise of Hashem can incorporate objective criteria – like a fruit’s association with the Land of Israel or it being in its agriculturally original state – whole, or alternatively, praise of Hashem can incorporate subjective criteria like personal predilections – the praise comes 
from one’s own experience and state of mind.

This distinction between objective and subjective frameworks of praise can be used to explain why the angels were subject to criticism but the Jewish People were not. Angels are beings designed only to carry out Hashem’s will devoid of the influence of free will. They are designed to be purely objective. When singing praises to Hashem, angels must represent the entire picture – the objective frame. Hence, Hashem criticizes them because they did not incorporate the whole frame – they failed to acknowledge the loss of humanity that served as the basis for the salvation of the Jewish People.

However, as human beings who experienced the salvation, there is no expectation for the Jewish People to maintain a completely objective framework – their song of praise emerged from their experience of salvation. Like the person who prioritizes making a blessing on a fruit – which is the means of his sustenance – using an object that is associated with the Land of Israel, the Jewish People sing praises to Hashem at the Red Sea – the place of their salvation – regarding Hashem’s greatness in His mastery over the world.


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