Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
“Mi chamocah ba-eilim, Adonai! Mi kamochah, nedar bakodesh, nora t’hillot, oseh feleh!”
After the sea parted, after the Israelites walked through on dry land, and after the waters crashed upon and destroyed Pharaoh’s pursuing army, these were among the verses Moses sang before Israel: “Who is like You, O God, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, worker of wonders?” (Ex. 15:11)
At this moment and in this place, why does Moses sing these words?
I have always assumed that Mi Chamochah was a rhetorical question, with the built in rhetorical answer: “None are like You, O God, because there are no other gods. You are One and the Only One.”
Interpreting Mi Chamochah rhetorically makes sense to us today, but how would the Israelites have understood Moses? Taken literally, Mi Chamochah presumes that other gods do exist, just on a level so far removed from God that there can be no real comparison. The Israelites, hearing Moses’ words for the first time were, among other things, steeped in all things Egyptian. They were raised in a world with many ‘gods,’ and likely would have interpreted Moses’ words more literally than we do today. They may even have felt a pull from those ‘gods,’ out of a sense of familiarity. Yes, the Israelites were now safely on the other side of the sea, physically free of Egyptian bondage, but how many were still enslaved spiritually? How many had already begun to look back to the ‘good ole days’ when the work was hard, but they knew what to expect and had a steady supply of food?
Moses’ Song at the Sea is the counterbalance to the lingering idolatry that Israel brought with it out of Egypt. It acknowledges that Egypt and most others worshipped many gods, and emphasizes that none compare to God. It demonstrates that redemption comes only from God, and it begs the question: where would you rather put your faith?
The rabbis who added Mi Chamochah to the liturgy were, quite frankly, brilliant. They understood that we still hear the call of Egypt, the lure of our false gods. Not that any of us go to our neighborhood idol shop to stock up, but we human beings have a way of putting our faith in all kinds of things, hoping that they will save us. Today, we give ourselves over to false gods like wealth, power, influence, addictions, unhealthy relationships, fad diets and more. Yet none of these is redemptive, none ultimately fulfills, none is like God.
This Shabbat, Torah and Prayer will become one, as standing with Moses and the Israelites on the far side of the Sea we sing: “Mi chamocah ba-eilim, Adonai! Mi kamochah, nedar bakodesh, nora t’hillot, oseh feleh! Who is like You, O God, among the gods? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in praise, worker of wonders?”
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras