Who is Like You?
Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg
The splitting of the sea, and in many ways the exodus from Egypt, culminates in the shira (song) composed by Moshe and the Jewish people. Contained within this epic work are deep and important ideas about God and His relationship to mankind. We even see this part of the Torah included in our daily tefilah, both in its entirety, and in two verses strategically placed by Chazal in the tefilah of “Ezras Avoseinu”. In a sense, these two verses summarize many of the ideas set forth in the shira. In this article, we will take a look at one of these two famous pesukim.
The renowned verse goes as follows (Shemos ):
“Who is like You among the powerful (baeilim), O Lord? Who is like You, powerful in the holy place? Too awesome (norah) for praises, performing wonders!”
In understanding the ideas contained within this verse, it is important to view the verse in two parts: the first being the “questions” and the second dealing with God being “too awesome for praises”. Rashi, in tackling the first part of the verse, explains that the question of God in comparison to the powerful is just that – recognition that God is stronger than anything. Therefore he understands the “comparison” as asking rhetorically who is more powerful than God. As he offers no insight into the second part of this first statement, we can assume Rashi takes the simple p'shat (explanation) that there is nothing as powerful as God in the “holy place”.
Ramban, though, takes issue with Rashi’s explanation. Rather than “powerful” referring to God’s strength, Ramban maintains that the allusion here is to the angels who are called “eilim”. He proceeds to bring different textual proofs supporting his position.
One would think this type of debate to be benign; after all, they are just arguing over the interpretation of one word. However, when we look at the verse in the context of the entire shira, the difference between the two opinions is wider than first imagined, as we will soon see. The first step we can take involves the nature of the rhetorical differentiation being set forth in this verse. One of the major themes demonstrated in the verses prior to this one has to do with God’s dominion over the natural world. Through God’s splitting of the sea, the Egyptians were drowned and the Jews were saved. At first glance, it would seem that Rashi continues with this theme in the first part of the above verse. The question being raised is in fact a complete realization of how God’s dominion and control over the natural world demonstrates His qualitative differentiation from said world – “who is like You”. What about the second “question”? We first denote God’s differentiation from the physical world. This logically leads us to the next distinction. The “holy place” would seem to be referring to the world of the metaphysical, as the term “kadosh” generally means something distinct or separate. As such, after denoting God’s distinction from the natural world, one makes the declaration that God is separate from the metaphysical world as well. The overall theme of the first part of this verse then is quite clear. There is first the recognition of God’s distinction from the physical world, and then from the metaphysical world.
Ramban’s seemingly minor change gives us a completely different view of this part of the verse. It would seem according to Ramban that the entire first part of this verse is focusing on God’s differentiation from the world of the metaphysical. The focus on the angels demonstrates how God is distinct from those created within the metaphysical world. We then move to, as Rashi notes, God as being separate from the entire metaphysical realm. In other words, and similar to Rashi, there is a progression in abstract ideas here, moving from one notion of God’s distinctness to the most abstract. Thus, the debate at this point between Rashi and Ramban would seem to be whether the ideas being revealed here are a progression from God’ differentiation from the physical world to the metaphysical, or from within the metaphysical world to beyond it.
This leads us to the second half of the verse, and the explanations offered by the above two commentators is quite surprising. Again, this part of the verse is divided into two parts - “too awesome for praises” and “performing wonders”, and the focus of the commentators is on the first part. In essence, Rashi writes that the meaning of “too awesome” is that we are afraid to give praises to God as they definitively will be too few. Ramban, as he does quite often, offers a different explanation. He agrees that rather than translating the word “norah” as “awesome”, it refers to fear. In this case, thought, it means “fearful with praises”. What does this denote? He continues: “for He does fearful things and He is praised for them, as when He wreaks vengeance on those who transgress His will and thereby helps those who serve Him. Thus He is feared and highly praised”.
What point is being brought out by each of these different opinions? Rashi’s explanation of “norah” being fear would seem to be zeroing in on the reaction one has to the ideas reached in the first half of the verse. When a person truly comprehends God’s qualitative differentiation from everything, he is instilled with a realization of how insignificant he actually is. He comes to realize that there is no possible way he can verbalize sufficient praise of God. Any praise will, by definition, be deficient and lacking. This in fact is one of the most difficult struggles man faces in his pursuit of yediyas Hashem, knowledge of God. As he begins understanding God, he is faced with the reality that any praise he gives will be incomplete.
Ramban, as we have seen, offers a more cryptic explanation. God’s actions are defined by both fear and praise simultaneously. We must understand what makes this wondrous; after all, man is also capable of acting in a manner where vengeance against one leads to salvation of another. It could be that Ramban is alluding to an important fundamental idea in hashgachas Hashem, God’s relationship to mankind. It is true that man can – in one action – produce vengeance and salvation. However, there is a limit to his control within and of these actions. There are always unintended consequences, a ripple effect from any event that affects the causal world in a way that is incomprehensible. Not so with God’s hashgacha. When He acts, His actions have no unintended consequences. There is never a “random” effect of happening to be both negative and positive, nor is there any detail of the plan that is haphazard. This concept is the result of God’s complete knowledge of the universe, every single causal event. Therefore, Ramban sees the progression in this verse in a different way than Rashi. It is not a reaction to the first half of the verse. Instead, Ramban sees it as being imperative to detail the greatness of God through His hashgacha after verbalizing the most abstract concept of God we have. Why is this imperative? It could be that after this initial praise, one is left (similar to Rashi) somewhat speechless, recognizing that we are so far removed from God. And with this realization comes as well a sense of futility – how is man to relate to God? The answer lies in the evidence of the hashgacha, when God chooses to reveal Himself to mankind. Those moments and events provide us the means of relating to God, opening up worlds of ideas for us to explore. Rather than leave man in a dumbfounded state, God creates a vehicle for man to enunciate his praises to God.
It is quite clear, then, how this one verse captures the themes laid out in the shira and takes them to the most abstract conclusion.