Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 81: Aiming for Greatness


We are charged to sing out in joy — God answered our prayers and rescued us from the bondage of Egyptian slavery:

אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ הַמַּעַלְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם; הַרְחֶב-פִּיךָ וַאֲמַלְאֵהוּ. 

“I am the Eternal your God Who raises you up from the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.” (Psalms 81:11)

What is the connection between our redemption from Egypt and “opening our mouths wide” to receive God’s blessings?

Ongoing Elevation

A careful reading of this verse will note two peculiarities about the word הַמַּעַלְךָ, “Who raises you up.” First of all, it does not say that God “took you out” of Egypt, but that He “raises you up.”1 It was not merely the act of leaving Egypt that made its eternal impact on the destiny of the Jewish nation, and through it, all of humanity. The Exodus was an act of elevation, lifting up the souls of Israel.

Additionally, the verse is not in the past tense but in the present: ‘Who raises you up.’ Is it not referring to a historical event?

We may understand this in light of the Midrash (Tanchuma Mikeitz 10) concerning the creation of the universe. The Midrash states that when God commanded the formation of the rakiya, the expanse between the upper and lower waters (Gen. 1:6), the divide between the heavens and the earth began to expand. This expansion would have continued indefinitely had the Creator not halted it by commanding, “Enough!”

In other words, unless they are meant only for a specific hour, Divine acts are eternal, continuing forever. So, too, the spiritual ascent of “raising you up from Egypt” is a perpetual act of God, influencing and uplifting the Jewish people throughout the generations.

There is no limit to this elevation, no end to our spiritual aspirations. The only limitations come from us, if we choose to restrict our wishes and dreams.2 But once we know the secret of הַמַּעַלְךָ and internalize the message of a Divine process that began in Egypt and continues to elevate us, we can aim for ever-higher spiritual goals.

It is instructive to note the contrast between the Hebrew word for ‘Egypt’ — Mitzrayim, literally, ‘limitations’ — and the expression, “open up wide.” God continually frees us from the confining restraints of Mitzrayim, enabling us to strive for the highest, most expansive aspirations.

Now we may understand why the verse concludes with the charge, “Open your mouth wide.” We should not restrict ourselves. We need to rise above all self-imposed limitations and transcend all mundane goals and petty objectives. If we can “open our mouths wide” and recognize our true potential for spiritual greatness, then “I will fill it” — God will help us attain ever-higher levels of holiness.

(Silver from the Land of Israel, pp. 149-150. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 219-220.)

1 Usage of the verb “raises” is striking when we compare this verse to the nearly identical verse that opens the Ten Commandments, “I am the Eternal your God Who took you out from the land of Egypt” (Exod. 20:2).

2 In I. L. Peretz’s tragic story of “Bontsha the Silent,” a downtrodden Jew is granted the opportunity to ask for whatever he wishes — any desire! To everyone’s shame, the greatest prize he can imagine is simply a fresh roll with butter.