Parshas Beshalach: The First Song

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Beshalach, the Bnei Yisrael find themselves trapped between the Sea of Reeds on one side and the Egyptians on the other side.  וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד – And the Children of Israel lifted their eyes, and behold the Egyptians were chasing after them, and they were very afraid (Shemos 14:10).  Panic stricken by the prospect of death, having just left Egypt, the people turn to Moshe and exclaim:

הֲמִבְּלִי אֵין-קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם, לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר:  מַה-זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ, לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם – are there not enough graves in Egypt, that you have taken us out to die in the desert?  What have you done to us, to take us out of Egypt!? Moshe reassures the people that they have nothing to fear: וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, אַל-תִּירָאוּ–הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת ה’, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם:  כִּי, אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת-מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם–לֹא תֹסִפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד, עַד-עוֹלָם – And Moshe said to the people, do not be afraid, stand by and see the salvation of G-d that He will do for you today, for as you see the Egyptians today, you will never see them again, forever (Shemos 14:11,13).

The sea miraculously splits, creating a damp seabed through which the Bnei Yisrael safely cross to the other side, while their Egyptian tormentors drown in the sea, as the waters crash down upon them.

In gratitude to Hashem for this great salvation, the people sing a glorious song of thanksgiving and praise (Shemos 15:1-19).  This song of praise and thanks is such a fundamental expression of our hope, trust and faith in G-d, for all the miracles that He has wrought for our forefathers and us, that it is commonly known as “Az Yashir,” and is recited daily in the Pesukei d’Zimrah (Tefilas Shachris). 

Medrash Shemos Rabbah 23:4 fascinatingly teaches:

מִיּוֹם שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת הָעוֹלָם וְעַד שֶׁעָמְדוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל הַיָּם לֹא מָצִינוּ אָדָם שֶׁאָמַר שִׁירָה לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶלָּא יִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרָא אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן וְלֹא אָמַר שִׁירָה, הִצִּיל אַבְרָהָם מִכִּבְשַׁן הָאֵשׁ וּמִן הַמְּלָכִים וְלֹא אָמַר שִׁירָה, וְכֵן יִצְחָק מִן הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת וְלֹא אָמַר שִׁירָה, וְכֵן יַעֲקֹב מִן הַמַּלְאָךְ וּמִן עֵשָׂו וּמִן אַנְשֵׁי שְׁכֶם וְלֹא אָמַר שִׁירָה, כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּאוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל לַיָּם וְנִקְרַע לָהֶם, מִיָּד אָמְרוּ שִׁירָה לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: אָז יָשִׁיר משֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

From the day that Hashem created the world, until Israel stood at the Sea, we do not find any person who uttered a song of praise before Hashem, other than the people of Israel (at the time of the splitting of the Reed Sea). 

Hashem created Adam, the first man, but he did not utter song (of praise to G-d); He saved Avraham from the fiery furnace (Rashi to Bereishis 11:28) and from the (war of the five kings vs. the) four kings (Bereishis 14), but he did not utter a song of praise; He saved Yitzchak from the knife of the Akeidah (Bereishis 22), but he did not utter a song of praise.  And so too, Hashem saved Yaakov from the angel (on the Yabok River), and from Eisav (his murderous brother), and from the people of Shechem (who had taken and violated Dina), but he did not utter praise

However, when the people of Israel came to the Sea and it parted before them, immediately they sang a song of praise before Hashem, as the verse says: אָז יָשִׁיר משֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – Then Moshe and the Children of Israel sang (Shemos 15:1).

How can we understand that until this moment in history, no person had ever sung shira to Hashem?  It cannot be that our founding fathers, the holy Avos, did not sing shira to Hashem, for all the good He bestowed upon them.  What, then, is the Medrash coming to teach us? 

“Based on the teachings of R’ Yeruchem Olshin shlita, and R’ Aharon Kotler zt’l, we understand that there are two ideas behind singing a shira (song).  The first is focused outward: to praise the Almighty for His wondrous acts.  The second is directed inward: to develop a sense of gratitude for the Divine kindness inherent in those acts, and to absorb the lessons imparted by them about G-d’s majesty, omnipotence, and caring involvement in human affairs.  For without the added contemplation afforded by shira, merely witnessing an event, even a miraculous one, will not guarantee that the impressions made by the event will long endure…

“Why do the Sages teach that the Song of the Sea was history’s first shira?  Certainly others sang to G-d for His great works and wonders!  The difference is that those earlier instances of people singing shira were of the angelic kind, hymns of praise meant solely to express the singer’s admiration for G-d.  There was no precedent for using song to develop one’s character and to deepen one’s faith.  That idea – that song can be directed inward – had to wait for Moshe and the nation at the Sea of Reeds” (Artscroll Medrash Shemos Rabbah Elucidated, 23§4, Insight A). 

The good that Hashem bestows upon each of us every single day is boundless; from a working body, to a roof over our heads (it sounds cliche but is very much not), to the food on our tables, and the clothing we don.  Moving beyond, we count ourselves fortunate for the people in our lives, for every breath we take, every sight we behold, every laugh, and yes, at times, every tear.  It is not enough to sing praise to G-d for His wondrous acts of creation and sustainment of our world.  We learn from the shira of Moshe and the Bnei Yisrael that song can be a medium to develop our characters, deepen our faith, and create and build our relationship with G-d.  עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָ-הּ, וַיְהִי-לִי לִישׁוּעָה – Hashem is my Strength and song, and He is to me my Salvation (Shemos 15:2). 

The Ba’al HaTanya (d.1812) used to say, “Speech is the quill of the heart, while melody is the quill of the soul” (Great Jewish Wisdom, Artscroll, p.143). 

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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