During parashat Beshallach, we read the song that the Israelites sang as they crossed the Sea of Reeds. While many liturgies include the full passage as part of daily and Shabbat prayer, two verses are more familiar because of its inclusion in the third blessing of both the evening and morning service. In this third blessing, we recite the verses of mi khamokha. In the morning, the full setting of the verses read (the biblical verses are in bold):
תְּהִלּוֹת לְאֵ*ל עֶלְיוֹן בָּרוּךְ הוּא וּמְבֹרָךְ, מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְךָ עָנוּ שִׁירָה בְּשִׂמְחָה רַבָּה, וְאָמְרוּ כֻלָּם
מִי כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִים יְיָ, מִי כָּמֹכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ, נוֹרָא תְהִלֹּת עֹשֵׂה־פֶלֶא
שִׁירָה חֲדָשָׁה שִׁבְּחוּ גְאוּלִים לְשִׁמְךָ עַל שְׂפַת־הַיָּם, יַחַד כֻּלָּם הוֹדוּ וְהִמְלִיכוּ וְאָמְרוּ
יְיָ יִמְלֹךְ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד
Tehilot l’El Elyon barukh Hu umvorakh, Moshe uvnei Yisrael lekha anu shira besimchah rabbah ve’amru khulam:
Mi khamokhah ba’elim Adonai, mi kamokha ne’dar bakodesh, nora tehilot oseh fele.
Shira chadashah shibchu ge’ulim leshimkha al sefat hayam, yachad kulam hodu vehimlikhu ve’amru:
Adonai yimlokh le’olam va’ed.
Praises to the Highest God who is constantly blessed. Moses and Israel sang to you in great joy, saying:
Who is like You, Adonai, among the other gods? Who is like you majestic in holiness, awe inspiring, doing wonders.
The redeemed praise You on the shore of the sea with a new song dedicated to your name. Together they acknowledged you and declared You Sovereign, saying:
Adonai will reign for ever and ever.
One constant challenge when teaching the prayer is explaining the use of the word ba’elim. The word literally means “other gods,” but this interpretation does not fit with our contemporary understanding of Judaism as a monotheistic religion. When we view monotheism as the belief in only one God, the existence of other gods would not make any sense. Through viewing different interpretations of this line, we have the opportunity to add nuance to our understanding of monotheism giving us a way to include a deeper expression of our values when we recite this prayer.
The rabbis of the midrash imagine that these figures would be other heavenly beings like angels. When God appeared at the splitting of the sea, these heavenly beings surrounded God like an entourage. For the rabbis, the difference between these heavenly beings and God is absolutely clear. They imagine that this exclamation is a statement that God is so radically different than any other supernatural phenomenon that there is no mistaking God for a lesser heavenly being. According to this interpretation, the other heavenly beings are not other gods; rather they are beings created by God and therefore immediately recognizable as lesser and not worth the worship of a true God.
Siddur Sim Shalom translates the word as “all that is worshiped.” This translation tries to preserve the literal definition of the word as “gods” but does so without impugning the assumptions of monotheism. The verse almost reads as a taunt to people who do not worship God. It implies that the other gods that people are worshiping are not actually gods, and that they are worshiping false idols that have no power. This interpretation also appears in the second half of the book of Isaiah in which God tells the prophet to walk by the workshops of idol makers and notice how the scraps of wood left over from carving an idol become fuel to cook a piece of meat. If the wood is holy enough to have been appropriate to make a god, how could it be used for such a mundane purpose? The interpretation is that there is no comparison between these false gods of other people and the true God of Israel.
Some siddurim will find other translation which obscure the actual meaning of the word using words like “the mighty,” which also could refer to powerful human figures. Rabbi Shai Held did not find these interpretations to be compelling since what sort of praise is it to compare something that simply exists to something which has no real substance? Why would we treat these verses as the daily expression of God’s power if they are only a description of the fact that God is a supernatural being that has any power compared to imagined or derivative beings which are no comparison.
The Italian/Israeli biblical scholar Umberto Cassuto argued that many of the biblical passages reflect much older traditions written more in the style of other ancient epic poems. These traditions came at a time when Israelite religion was still developing its sense of a unique monotheism. In these traditions, the story of creation included God fighting and vanquishing the primordial sea monsters. The battles with other peoples would included God fighting and winning against the gods of those peoples. The passage of the song of the sea includes the references to both and reflects the true ascension of God as the true ruler of all. This thread became lost as Israel developed it sense of monotheism as having only one God and understanding that God as radically different than anything else sensed in creation.
This line of thinking, however, gives urgency to the moment when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds. God’s power was necessary to overcome the strong and powerful forces of chaos, represented by the sea, and oppression, represented by Egypt. Viewing this victory as a struggle, even if the victory was inevitable, develops a deeper appreciation of the importance of the victory.
Today, we often read the stories of the Bible and our prayers as metaphors. By remembering the echoes of that struggle, we can hear the contemporary struggle that we have against feelings of oppression and chaos. It reminds us that our search for meaning in religion can give us strength and support as we struggle to find our own feelings of liberation and order in a chaotic world.
I find the following upbeat melody as a good way to express the hope and strength inspired by this prayer.