The rabbinic interpretive tradition thrives on questions and challenges. This approach especially applies to its reading of the Torah. Most often these questions arise from the way the text expresses itself; less often, the sages confront what seems to them theological difficulties. Parshat Beshallach presents an instance of the latter. When the children of Israel set off on their journey out of Egyptian bondage, they were confronted by the marauding Egyptian army on one side and the sea on the other. In order to assuage their fears, God proffered for them providential guidance: “And the Lord was going before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light to go by day and by night.” (Exodus 13:21)
This verse’s description of God’s efforts troubled certain of the sages. For some, it seemed inappropriate for God to personally carry out such action. For Onkelos, the author of the most accepted Aramaic translation of the Torah, the representation of God in anthropomorphic terms, was disconcerting. Consequently, God does not directly act here, according to Onkelos, rather He guides the people through words: “And the Lord, spoke to them by day, in a pillar of cloud to guide them on the way, and at night, in a pillar of fire to provide light for them.” (Who says that “Wazes” is a modern invention!) Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), Rashi’s grandson, relegates this mission to angels: “An angel brought before Israel a pillar of fire and a pillar of cloud.” Rashi took the middle ground on this question: “He (God) led them by way of an agent. Who was the agent? The pillar of cloud – and the Holy One Blessed be He in His glory led it before them.”
The following midrash, from the period of the Mishnah, raised a different theological question along with a surprising response by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, author of the Mishnah:
“And the Lord Went before Them by Day. Is it possible to say so? Has it not already been said: ‘Don’t I (God) fill heaven and earth? Said the Lord’ (Jeremiah 23:24)? And it is written: “And one called unto another, and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory’” (Isaiah 6:3). And it also says: ‘And, look, the glory of the God of Israel . . . and the earth did shine with His glory’ (Ezekiel 43:2). So how can Scripture say: ‘And the Lord went before them by day’?”
According to this midrash, the above verse contradicts the assertions of the prophets that God’s presence fills the entire world. In reply to this question, Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi offers an anecdotal parable above the behavior of his friend, the Roman governor, Antoninus:
“Said Rabbi: Antoninus would sometimes continue his court sessions, sitting on the platform, till after dark, and his sons would stay with him there. When leaving the platform, he himself would take a torch and light the way for his sons. The great men of the Empire would approach him saying: ‘We will take the torch and light the way for your sons.’ But he would say to them: ‘It is not that I have no one to take the torch and light the way for my sons. Rather, I [want] show you how my love for my sons, so that you should treat them with respect.’ In the same way, God showed the nations of the world how dear the children of Israel were to Him, in that He Himself went before them so that the nations should treat them with respect…” (adapted from Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael Beshalakh 1, Horowitz-Rabin ed. p. 82)
Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi affirms the Scriptural description of God’s actions by illustrating its relevance with an anecdote describing the behavior of human royalty. The assumption here is that if a Roman royal behaves a certain way out of love for his children, how much more appropriate is it for God to behave in like manner out of love for His people. What prompts Rabbi’s fearless use of anthropomorphism and his projection of Antoninius’s behavior onto God? The midrash makes this explicit. On a particularistic level, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi wants the world to emulate God’s behavior and to treat the Jewish people properly. On a more universal level, this midrash teaches us through God’s example that people learn to treat others with dignity by personal example and, in this case, there is no greater exemplar than God.