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Our Higher Power

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Beshalach - Shabbos Shirah
Our Higher Power

The first time he heard her sing was at a country club in the mountains. She had an exquisite voice. All the diners were thoroughly entertained as they were eating their meals. After her rendition of Stevie Nicks, there was a huge round of applause.

Marc could not believe that a person with her talent would sell herself short by performing at clubs and bars. With a little training, this young woman could really go places. So, he decided to approach her.

"That was amazing!"


"Have you ever taken voice lessons?"

"Who's asking?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Marc. I work in the Music Industry. In fact, I have managed some of the world's most extraordinary vocalists."

"Yeah, like who?"

"Have you heard of Anni - Frid Lyngstad from ABBA? What about Linda Ronstadt? Certainly you know who Karen Carpenter is. They were all my clients."

"Wow, that's cool."

"You know, you really are gifted."

"Thank you."

"What's your name?"


"Tell me Debbie, why would a person possessing a gift such as yours, waste it on night clubs?"

"To tell you the truth, I don't really enjoy singing. I know that I've got a decent voice so I just do it to make a few bucks to cover the bills."

"You know, with a little coaching, you could become famous and wealthy!"

Debbie was skeptical. Who was this Marc anyway?

But, as he kept talking, Debbie sensed that he was sincere. Marc gave her his card. After thinking about it for a couple of days, Debbie called to set up a meeting. Marc took her under his wing and sent her for voice lessons. After mastering diaphragmic breathing, it was off to the recording studio.

Marc was frustrated. He knew that she could belt it out like Perrie Edwards and Christina Aguilera, but something was holding her back.

"Darn it Debbie! What's the matter with you? You're wasting all of our time."

"I told you, I don't really enjoy singing. I just do it to make a living."

"Listen, if you ever want to get anywhere in life, you've got to believe in it. You must be passionate in whatever you do. Maybe you feel disconnected from these songs because you don't appreciate what the words mean and where they came from. I want you to speak to the song writers. Let them describe the feelings and emotions that went into their lyrics. Let them tell you about their life experiences which motivated them to compose these words."

Debbie took Marc's advice, and it literally changed her life. Debbie found herself crying while listening to the song writers' stories. The words were filled with so much emotional energy that she thought that she was going to burst.

The next time that they went to the recording studio, Debbie sang like she never sang before. With her eyes closed shut, wrinkles on her forehead, and tears in her eyes, Debbie sang a song that became one of the best hits of the decade.

Her first album was a smashing success. Debbie went on to make another seventeen more records. She was famous and wealthy, just as Marc had predicted.

However, Debbie could not help her depression. She could not understand it. She had everything money could buy, a beautiful mansion with a swimming pool and tennis court, cars, clothes, and jewels. Why was she so unhappy? Marc detected her sadness and decided to invite Debbie to join him, his wife, and children for a Friday night dinner in their Beverly Hills home.

When Debbie arrived at their house, she could instantly feel that something was different. She noticed that everything was clean and neat, candles were lit, and everybody was dressed in their finest. Debbie could not remember ever seeing Marc in a suit and tie.

Whatever was cooking in the kitchen smelled heavenly. The two braided breads and silver cup of wine on the decoratively set table caught her attention, too.

Debbie was impressed at how nice Marc's wife, Miriam, was. And the children were so well behaved. Tears came to Debbie's eyes during Shalom Aleichem and Kiddush. Conversation flowed easily throughout the night. Debbie didn't want to leave.

"You can sleep here if you'd like," they offered. "After all, it is getting a bit late. We do have a guest room."

"Oh, I wouldn't want to impose."

Suddenly the children began chanting, "Please stay Debbie, please stay!"

"It would not be an imposition, and besides, the children would be awfully upset if you left. Please, do US the favor and stay."

"Well, if you insist, OK."

"Yaaaaayyyy!" came the children's shouts of joy.

Debbie spent the Shabbos with Marc and his family. It was the most uplifting experience she had ever felt her entire life. During naptime in the afternoon, it occurred to Debbie that she truly felt happy. How long had it been?

At the third meal, Debbie opened up about her past. She told her host family what they already suspected, that she was born Jewish. Faint memories of Shabbos in her own home had brought those tears on Friday night. But then her father died, and her mother, who did not cope well, wound up leaving religion all together.

Debbie said that she realized what it was that she had been missing her entire life. God. She wanted to study more about Judaism.

Then, Debbie told them that she had a Jewish name. The name Debbie was English for Devora. Actually, she had two names, Shira Devora.

"I can't believe it," Marc shouted.

"Believe what?" Debbie asked.

"Your name. Do you realize the significance of your name?"

"No. What is it?"

"You're a singer, right? Well, there are ten famous songs in Judaism. One of them is the song of Devora, the prophetess. Moreover, your first name, Shira, means song. Together, your Jewish name means, "The Song of Devora." Your name describes your essence. It appears that your mission in life is to serve God through song."

Debbie could not believe it. This revelation simply blew her away.

Slowly, Debbie began taking classes. Eventually, she became religious, married, and moved to Israel where she is currently raising a family of six beautiful children.

She became famous for putting on musicals with Jewish themes in Tanach. There was a new show twice annually. All of the artists were women performing for women. Many young teenage girls who struggled with Torah observance became committed to a Torah life style because of these plays.

The highlight of every performance was when Debbie, now Devora, would come on stage and belt out her solo. The emotion in those melodies was tangible. People got chills up and down their spines when she sang. It really moved them.

Perhaps her greatest performance was a musical about the Jewish people leaving Egypt. They did an incredible version of the song the Jews sang after the parting of the waters. Devora's finale brought the house down.

After the show, throngs of admirers crowded around her asking how she put so much emotion into her songs. With a distant memory in her eyes and mind, she responded, "An old friend and mentor of mine, Marc, whose Jewish name I discovered is Moshe, told me that if I wanted to succeed, I would have to study the words, connect to the emotions of the people who wrote them, and put myself in their places.

This would make me passionate about what I would sing. That deep connection to the emotions is what reaches my audiences. This teaching held true in my secular life and it still holds true in my religious one. By studying the Az Yashir, I began to absorb some of its inner meanings. This is what comes across to my fans."

We should also follow Moshe's instruction and learn a little more about the meaning behind the Shiras Hayam (song sung by the sea) so that it connects us even more deeply to God.

The Arugas Habosem (Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, first Puppa Rebbe, Hungary, 1853-1910) says that, at first, the Jews were not sure they should sing this song to God because maybe they will sin in the future and God will destroy them. That would make this redemption from Egypt a temporary one, undeserving of such a song.

However, when they saw that Hashem first destroyed the angel who governed Egypt, and only then proceeded to destroy the Egyptians (Shemos Rabba, 21:5), they realized that this was a permanent salvation. They came to this realization because they understood that God was conveying to them the way in which He operates, which is, that He always destroys a nation's guardian angel above before destroying the nation below.

The Jewish people inferred from this that before they would ever be destroyed, their higher power would have to be destroyed first. The heavens opened during the time of Kriyas Yam Suf (the Splitting of the Sea) and they saw the seventy angels of the seventy nations, but they did not see their own angel.

It was then that the Jewish people realized that their Higher Power was not an angel, but rather God Himself. They understood that just as God could never be destroyed, they too could never be destroyed. Just as God is eternal, they too would be eternal.

Although individuals may die, the Jewish people as a whole would live forever. History has proved this time and again. With all the odds stacked against us, we are still here.

Perhaps we could suggest that this was what the Jews were really praising Hashem about. When it says in the song, "Horse and rider You threw into the water," the Midrash comments that the singular lingo (horse and not horses) comes to teach us that it was the angel appointed over Egypt that God toppled. According to Onkelos (Ex. 15:1), this verse describes THE greatness of God.

When you think about it, what was so great about that? Obviously, God can cause a horse, a rider, and angel to topple. There is nothing novel about that. Where do we see Hashem's true greatness?

Maybe we could propose that it was not so much the toppling of people, animals, and angels that they were praising, but they were thanking Hashem for what that toppling made them realize. For the first time in their lives, they got a glimpse into the methods that Hashem implements in running governments. First God wipes out the nation's angel above, and only then, does He destroy the people below.

The Jews began to apply that system to themselves. What if God would eradicate their angel above? They would also be destroyed. But, the Jews saw that there were only seventy angels governing the seventy nations. They did not see an angel set aside to govern themselves. They realized that this is because Hashem Himself guides the Jewish people directly.

This meant that just as God is eternal, the Jews are eternal. This is what they were praising. This is what they claimed God's greatness to be. Making the Jewish people special by making them indestructible. The Jews claimed that this was Hashem's true greatness.

Let us analyze why Egypt's guardian angel pursued the Jewish people to begin with. The past two weeks, we have been focusing on the fact that the Jews were supposed to be slaves for 430 years because of the "nefesh" (soul, numerically 430) that Adam and Eve damaged with the sin of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, thereby damaging their five senses, bringing five measures of harshness in the world represented by five Names of "Elokim" (numerically 86, but, when multiplied by 5, equals 430).

We mentioned that the Jews were only slaves for 86 years and we have to make up the missing years throughout the four exiles and by trying to repair our five senses.

However, we did not spend so much time on discussing the fact that the Jews were exiled to Egypt for 210 years. True, only 86 of those years were spent as slaves, but, they were exiled to a strange land that was not theirs for 210 years. Why did they have to suffer Egyptian exile for 210 years?

It was in order to atone for a different sin, the sale of Yosef. Nine out of the Twelve Tribes participated in that sin. Reuven was not there because he was begging Ya'akov to forgive him for moving his bed from Bilha's tent to Leah's. Binyamin, the youngest son, did not participate in the sale of his only full brother. Yosef was the victim and was certainly not guilty for that sin.

When you subtract those three brothers from the Twelve Tribes, you are left with nine participants in the sin. However, the brothers pulled God Himself in to join them with the sale of Yosef so that they would have a court of ten to establish an excommunication on anybody who would reveal the sale of Yosef to Ya'akov (Rashi Gn. 37:33, citing Tanchumah 2).

Hashem had His own calculations in joining them. For example, Hashem wanted to get the ball rolling with respect to triggering the Egyptian exile in fulfillment of His prophecy to Avraham that his descendants would be strangers in a land that was not theirs.

Hashem also wanted to punish Ya'akov for remaining in Lavan's house for so long which prevented him from fulfilling the mitzvah of honoring his parents. Now Yosef would be away from Ya'akov's home for a long time, measure for measure.

Hashem also wanted to keep Yosef's sale secret from Ya'akov so that Ya'akov would not pray to bring Yosef back which would have prevented the prophecy of Egyptian slavery from happening. Additionally, had Ya'akov been aware of the sale, Ya'akov may have cursed his other sons for doing such a terrible thing. Ya'akov's curse could have caused death to his children like it did to Rochel when Ya'akov unknowingly cursed her for stealing her father's idols. So, Hashem went along with the brothers. However, since they were not thinking about doing a mitzvah with the sale, it was considered a sin in accordance with their spiritual level (Sifsei Chachamim, #2).

In all, there were ten participants in the sale of Yosef. Therefore, it ruined ten Names of Eheyeh (I Will Be). The numerical value of Eheyeh is 21. Ten times 21 is 210, teaching us that it would take 210 years of exile to repair the ten Names of Eheyeh that were damaged by the ten participants in the sin (Marginisa D'Rav, Vayechi, citing Reb Shimshon M'Astropoli; Arizal, Sha'ar Hakavanos, Pesach, derush aleph).

But what does it mean for a Name of God to be damaged? It means that we damage the way God is going to treat us.

The reason why the Name Eheyeh was damaged is because it is not a Name which describes the essence of God. Rather it describes the way that Hashem chooses to guide us. Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh means that I will be with them the way they will be with Me. In other words, I will treat them the way they treat Me. If they do My will, I will treat them better, if not, not.

Since they went against God's will by selling Yosef (God could have brought about the Egyptian exile in a different way), God treated them differently than He would have wanted to. God had to be harsh with them. Therefore, God sent them into exile for 210 years in order to atone for the damage done to the ten Names of Eheyeh.

However, the Name Havayah could never be damaged because it describes the essence of God. Just as God could never be harmed, neither could the Name Havayah (Bris Kehunas Olam, chap. 30).

However, Moshe mistakenly thought that the sale of Yosef damaged ten Names of Havayah. Since Havayah is numerically 26, Moshe thought that they would have to be slaves for 260 years (Havayah times ten equals 260). This is why the verse says that Havayah saw that Moshe "sar" (turned) to see the miracle by the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:4). It means that Moshe looked at the Name Havayah and thought that it was damaged ten times over because of the ten participants in the sale of Yosef.

Therefore, Moshe thought that they would have to be in Egyptian exile for 260 years to repair the damage that was done to Havayah by the ten participants in Yosef's sale. This is hinted to in the word "sar" (turned) which is spelled samech reish, which equals 260. Only 210 years past, therefore; Moshe thought that they would have to endure another 50 years.

Moshe asked Hashem that when the Jews will ask Who sent him, what Name should he use to describe Hashem. If he tells them that Havayah sent me, they will say that it's too early to leave. Come back in another fifty years.

Hashem responded, "Do not come close to here." What was there? The Name Havayah was with Hashem. That's how the story of the Burning Bush begins, by mentioning Havayah. God basically said to Moshe not to look at the Name Havayah because it was never damaged by the brothers. If the Jews want a Name, tell them that it is Eheyeh. Only ten of those Names were damaged requiring only 210 years of exile. The time is ripe for them to leave.

This is another way of understanding the greatness of God. It is not that God toppled a horse and rider, and it is not that God toppled an angel, but rather it is that God made His Name Havayah untouchable. This allowed the Jews to leave Egypt after only 210 years. They would not have to stay an additional 50 years. Had they had to spend another 50 years in Egypt, they would have fallen into the fiftieth level of impurity which is beyond the point of return. So assimilated would they have become that there would not have been a people left to redeem (Shvilei Pinchas).

The angel appointed over Egypt made the same mistake as Moshe. The angel thought that the brothers damaged ten Names of Havayah. Therefore, he wanted the Jews to come back for another 50 years, equaling 260 altogether.

This is hinted to in his name "Sorev." When divided properly, "Sorev" can spell "bo (beis vov) - reish samech" (in him there is a claim of 260 years). The angel only claimed to have wanted only 50 additional years from the Jews. However, he realized that had they stayed there any longer, they would have sunken into the 50th level of impurity which is beyond the point of return. The angel actually wanted the Jews to remain in Egypt as slaves for eternity.

The angel's other name, Mitzrayim, compliments the name Sorev, because when you split the name Mitzrayim into two, you get "Meitzar - yam", which means to remain in the "borders" (meitzar) of Egypt for an additional "50" (yam is numerically 50) years.

The Jewish people made the same mistake as Moshe and the angel. They also thought that they would have to be exiled for 260 years. This can be seen by the verse that says that they lifted their "eyes" and saw Egypt pursuing them (Ex. 14:10). The word for eye is "ayin." Since they lifted BOTH of their eyes, that means they used two "ayins." Two words of "ayin" is numerically 260. From the Jewish people's eyes, meaning, from their perspective, they should have been exiled to Egypt for 260 years because they thought that ten Names of Havayah were damaged by the ten who participated in Yosef's sale.

Moshe told them not to worry because specifically Havayah would do battle for them (Ex. 14:14) because the Name Havayah was never damaged.

This is hinted to in the song that they sang. There are eighteen verses in this song (Ramban, Rabbenu Bachya). In those eighteen verses, the Name Havayah appears specifically ten times, indicating that we thanked Hashem for making His Name Havayah untouchable, allowing us to leave just after 210 years (Shvilei Pinchas).

The eighteen verses correspond to the eighteen vertebrae in the spine which will be resurrected before the rest of the body is. At that time, we will sing this very song to God again (Rabbenu Bachya; Sanhedrin, chap. 11, "Cheilek", pg. 91b).

Practically speaking, we can make our recitation of the Az Yashir even more meaningful by concentrating on the following ideas.

With the recitation of the first verse, let's keep in mind that we thank Hashem for destroying the angel Sorev which is coded into the first verse. Let us also keep in mind to thank Hashem for refuting Sorev's claim hinted to in his name (bo- reish samech - in him is a claim of 260). Let us also thank Hashem for being our Higher Power, not an angel, which is tantamount to thanking God for making the Jewish people eternal.

During the recitation of the whole song, every time we mention one of the Names of Havayah, let us thank Hashem for making that Name untouchable which enabled us to come out of Egypt only after 210 years, ensuring Jewish survival.

During the recitation of the entire song of eighteen verses, let us thank Hashem for the time when we will be resurrected via the eighteen vertebrae when we will sing this song to Him again.

So, may we Bnei Yisrael be blessed to atone for our sins for which we sell ourselves short, and destroy any prosecuting angels who refuse to let us go, so that we can leave our current Mitzrayim, and witness with our very own eyes our return to Eretz Yisrael together with those who will be resurrected, and sing the highest song to our Havayah forever.

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