Shabbat Shirah

The song of thanksgiving (shirah) that the Children of Israel sang after the Red Sea was miraculously split holds an important place in our holy Torah. The printed page is too short to contain all the Midrashic sayings that praise the loftiness and greatness of this song. The special place occupied by this song is due not only to its uniquely eloquent style, recognized by all students of literature, but to its nobility of spirit, to its incomparable awakening of sublime and lofty feelings, and to its elevation, and joining together as one, of the soul and the person. Not for nothing did Hazal, deducing from the word "saying" (leimor) that it would be said for all time, include it in the Pesuqei d'zimrah, consisting entirely of songs of praise and thanksgiving to the Almighty, prior to the morning prayers.

The angels also wished to sing a song of praise to G-d at that moment when Israel emerged from the sea. However, the Holy One Blessed Be He prevented them from doing so, by saying: "Let Israel go first." From this R. Aqiva deduced the following:

At the moment when Israel sang the song of thanksgiving, the Holy One Blessed Be He donned a cloak of glory on which were engraved every word "then" (az) in the Torah.

And the Midrash on the verse (Psalms 8:3): "Out of the mouths of babes and suckling ones you have founded a bulwark" teaches us:

Even fetuses in their mothers' wombs recited the song of thanksgiving on the sea as it is written (Psalms 68:27): "Bless G-d in the assemblies, the L-rd, O you that are in the source of Israel."

So it is necessary for us to reflect on this song and on wherein lies its value, its importance, and its glory, and on why, more than any other song in the Scriptures, it is praised and extolled. Now hear, my dear reader, what my Fortress has inspired concerning this lofty and sublime matter.

We find the following in the Midrash and the Gemara:

"Then will [he] sing" (az yashir). It is not written "then [he] sang" (az shar). Rather, "then will [he] sing." Here we find an allusion to the resurrection of the dead in the Torah.

This association between the tense of the verb "yashir" and the resurrection of the dead is an amazing idea that demands explanation.

Now in the initial mission of the Moses to Israel, the Almighty says: "I Am Who I Am" (ehyeh asher eyheh) which was an answer to Israel's question (anticipated by Moses): "what is His name?" Quoting the Sages in Berakhot 9b, Rashi comments,

"I will be with them in this difficulty and I will be with them again when they will be subjugated to the nations." (See the Gemara there and the explanation in the Hidushei Aggadot of the Mahrsha.)

The upshot of this remarkable statement is that when He first sent Moses to Egypt the Holy One Blessed Be He promised that He would redeem Israel from any danger that would come upon them in their future journey through history. So they were supposed to understood that in the future they would be beset by enemies from all sides, and that the name of the Eternal signifies that He was, He is, and He will be - past, present and future. This was the awesome and holy name that Moses revealed to Israel, which teaches that there is a constant, miraculous, Divine Providence upon Israel and upon the destiny of the national life of this holy, distinct, and unique people.

However, Moses did not reveal to Israel that the future would bring trouble after trouble, subjugation after subjugation, for he did not want to reveal to them that a long chain of subjugation and persecution awaited them on their path. Moses understood that Israel in Egypt no longer stood on a moral plane high enough to trust that their Redeemer would come to their aid in all the terrible eras that they would undergo in the future. He therefore said to the Holy One Blessed Be He: "It is sufficient to mention a misfortune in its time. Israel is no longer fit to be told about its future and what will happen in future times."

Moses therefore told them only about the salvation from the trouble that they were then experiencing. However, after leaving Egypt, after seeing all the miracles and wonders that were performed in Egypt and then on the Red Sea, the Children of Israel were elevated from a deep valley to an exalted peak. They saw with their own eyes the special and sublime Providence of the Eternal. As the Sages of Blessed Memory said: "A maidservant saw on the Red Sea what Ezekiel the son of Buzi never saw." They were raised from their lowly station in Egypt to the highest level of boundless faith, and they believed in the Eternal and in Moses, His servant.

It was only then that Israel was aroused to sing a song of thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, not only for all that had happened in Egypt and that was happening then at the sea, but, from their inner belief and recognition, they trusted that the salvation of G-d would come and protect this suffering and oppressed people in all future eras. Therefore: "then Moses and the Children of Israel will sing" (az yashir Moshe u-v'nei yisrael). That is, their song was in the future tense, because they sang in thanksgiving and praise to G-d for all the salvations in the future. At that moment, they trusted in the promise of the Holy One Blessed Be He to Israel in Egypt - "I Am Who I am" - to deliver them not just in this trouble, but in all the future troubles of their subjugation to the nations. This song of thanksgiving about the future shows the exalted moral level up to which the Children of Israel had raised themselves at the sea by giving expression to their faith and trust in the Eternal in this extraordinary song of thanksgiving - the song of Moses and the Children of Israel.

It was thus appropriate for Hazal to have praised and extolled this song for symbolizing the faith of Israel and their reliance on the Eternal and His promise "I Am Who I Am." And the inference of Hazal that the future tense alludes to the resurrection of the dead is correct as well. For this inference accords with what the Sages said in Nedarim 64 that there are four who are called "dead," among whom is the poor person who is oppressed and persecuted and afflicted by excruciating difficulties. They inferred this from the verse (Lamentations 3:6): "He has made me sit in dark places, as the dead of long ago." For in exile we are like blind people who are feeling in the gloom and the darkness of the difficulty of the exile.

The redemption from the difficult and awful conditions of the "dry bones of all the house of Israel" as Ezekiel in his prophecy describes the end of days - that redemption is indeed a resurrection of the dead. Our emancipation from the subjugation to the nations that have tortured Israel throughout all the eras will be a resurrection of Israel which resembles a person who, because of his agony, his subjugation, and his poverty, is considered to be "dead." This is the resurrection alluded to in the song of Moses. Then will Moses and the Children of Israel sing (az yashir moshe u-venai yisrael). A song for the future.

All this explains as well why Israel did not sing a song of thanksgiving and praise on the night that they left Egypt, when the King of the king of kings revealed Himself in His person and His glory, but waited until after the miracle at the Red Sea to do so. For it was only when the miracle of the Red Sea occurred that Moses's mission was confirmed and the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He - "I Am Who I Am," in this difficulty and in the subjugation to the nations - was revealed to Israel. Immediately after the exodus from Egypt and their deliverance from bondage and servitude to Pharaoh, a new misfortune came upon them when the Egyptians pursued and caught up to them while they were standing before the sea that blocked their path with the Egyptians at their back. Moses then said to them (Exodus 14:13-14): "Stand firm and see the deliverance of the Eternal. . . .The Eternal will fight for you and you have only to keep still." Then came the salvation and Pharaoh's host drowned in the sea as the Children of Israel went in the dry land in the midst of the sea, which confirmed the promise of the Eternal: "I Am Who I Am"- in the present difficulty and in future difficulties.

Israel therefore sang this song not just for that deliverance, but for the entire future that was destined to befall them. That is why they said "then will Moses and the Children of Israel sing." "Will sing" in the future tense. For it was a song of thanksgiving for the past and for the future. Similarly in Egypt, the sacrifice of the Pascal lamb that they brought symbolized the pending redemption, when the Eternal was about to pass over the houses of the Children of Israel. In trust and belief that their redemption was at hand, they celebrated even before the redemption came. Thus, even the Passover celebrated in Egypt was a Passover for the future, for the Passover in Egypt was celebrated in recognition of the future in the belief that on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan the Eternal was going to pass over the houses of the Children of Israel.

How appropriate, then, is what is said in the Midrash Yalqut:

From the day that the Holy One Blessed Be He created the world until Israel stood at the sea, we find no one that sang a song of thanksgiving to the Holy One Blessed Be He except Israel. He created Adam, but Adam did not sing a song of thanksgiving. He saved Abraham from the fiery furnace, but Abraham did not sing a song of thanksgiving. He saved Isaac from the knife, but Isaac did not sing a song of thanksgiving. He saved Jacob from Esau and Shekhem, but Jacob did not sing a song of thanksgiving. But when Israel came and the sea was split for them, they immediately sang a song of thanksgiving, for it is written, "then will Moses and the Children of Israel sing." And the Holy One Blessed Be He said: "It was for this that I was waiting."

The meaning of the Midrash is obviously that even though Adam and the Patriarchs also sang songs of thanksgiving, thanking and praising the Eternal for the miracles that He performed for them, they sang songs of thanksgiving only after a miracle was performed for them, when the salvation of the Eternal had already come to pass. But the superiority of the song of Israel at the sea consists in the singular characteristic that they sang the song in the future tense for the salvation that is destined to come upon them in the future for every trouble and misfortune that may beset them. They understood and they knew that the future would bring upon them the subjugation to the nations and the yoke of exile. But they believed that the Guardian of Israel would not sleep and would not slumber. They believed in the promise of the Eternal contained in the name "I Am Who I Am" - in every period of difficulty and subjugation to the nations. It was for a song of thanksgiving like this, a song of thanksgiving for the future, that the Holy One Blessed Be He was waiting. In this rests the value and excellence, the extraordinary importance, of the song at the sea. A song for the future.

This astonishing idea finds expression, too, in the custom of Holy Israel to celebrate the fifteenth day of Shevat, when the budding of the trees begins, as the New Year's day of the trees. For in most years this day falls in the week in which the portion containing the song at the sea is read. Not only after the harvest, after gathering the blessing of the land, the increase of the threshing floor and the increase of the winepress, do we, in the festival of the first-fruits (Shavuot) and the harvest festival (Sukkot), celebrate and give thanks and praise to the Holy One Blessed Be He for all the good that he has bestowed upon us. Rather, as soon as the trees begin to bud, do we, in anticipation of what is destined to come in the future, in the trust that the land will give its fruit and the trees will carry and be loaded with the fruit for which the land of Israel is renowned, celebrate and give expression to our trust in the blessing of the land and its fruit.

Hazal found an allusion to the idea that a judgment is rendered even on the trees because in the Psalms (96:12) we find that the trees of the field say: "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Eternal, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth." This corresponds to the song at the sea which was a song of thanksgiving for the future that in every generation when they arise against us to destroy us, the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from them. This is the "great hand" (yad ha-gedolah) that the Eternal used in Egypt, which encompasses all future times. It assures us that even when we shall be in the land of our enemies, He will not despise us and will not abominate us to destroy us utterly, for He is the Eternal our G-d. "I Am Who I Am." That is His name and His memorial for all generations.