“The Shira: The Source of All Song”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat B’shalach, we encounter the shira, the song, namely the song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red Sea. Because this song plays such a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.

Until Moses and the People of Israel sang this song, no one in history had ever expressed gratitude to G-d through the medium of song. When Adam was created, he did not sing to G-d. When Abraham was saved from the fiery furnace, he did not sing to G-d. When Isaac was rescued from the sword of the Akeidah, he did not sing to G-d. When Jacob was saved when wrestling with the angel of Esau, he did not sing to G-d. But when Israel came to the sea shore and the waters were split, they burst out in song. As we read in Exodus 15:1, “Az Yashir Moshe, U’venai Yisrael et ha’shira ha’zot laHashem, va’yomru laymor,” Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to G-d, and they said: “Ashira la’Hashem kee ga’oh ga’ah, soos v’rochvo rama ba’yam,” I shall sing to G-d for he is exalted above all, horse and rider have been hurled into the sea.

If one were to look at the actual Torah text of the shira one would note immediately that something profound is taking place in the narrative. The text of the shira, is structured “short brick over long brick, long brick over short brick,” as if a building is being built. And surely, with the recitation of the shira, a structure of song and poetry was laid for all future generations. The Mechilta states that even a simple maidservant at the sea perceived a higher degree of revelation than did the prophet Ezekiel in his heavenly vision. It was there, at the sea, that Moses and the Jewish people understood their purpose in life as never before. Why were they exiled? Why were they enslaved? Why were they persecuted? Why the hopelessness they felt as they were surrounded by Pharaoh with the sea looming ahead of them? Just a few moments before it seemed that they were surely correct when they said that Moses and Aaron’s intervention in Egypt had only made things worse! And suddenly, at the sea, the Jewish people realized that all of G-d’s handiwork, all of their life experiences, all that they had endured, was really a Divine song, a Divine symphony; that every heretofore incomprehensible event, was, as the Artcroll Stone Chumash so beautifully remarks, a “part of a harmonious score,” composed by G-d Almighty, that led up to the greatest of all miracles.

In his masterpiece work, The Book of Our Heritage, Eliyahu Kitov writes about the shira. “In addition to the ‘Song of the Sea,’ this portion [B’shalach] contains many other themes: the Exodus from Egypt, the splitting of the sea, the statutes and judgments given in Mara, the manna, the well, and the war with Amalek. Nevertheless, Israel selected only the theme of shira as the name to be given to this Shabbat. For whenever Israel utters this song throughout the generations, it is as new for them. When they first sang it, G-d and His Hosts harkened, as it were, to the utterance of their mouths. At that hour, the souls of Israel attained the highest state of exaltation; their hearts became wellsprings overflowing with Torah, and the sound of their words was like the voice of the Almighty. Further, this Torah, which welled up from within them, preceded the Torah which they heard from the Almighty on Mount Sinai.” Kitov continues, with emphasis, “With the strength of this song they ‘implanted’ song and rejoicing in the heart of Israel til the end of the generations. Whenever Israel would hence be delivered from their enemies and saved from distress, their hearts would then sing in praise to the G-d who had delivered them, and their thanksgiving would be not only in behalf of themselves, but for all G-d’s loving kindness.” The shira begins with the introduction: (Exodus 15:1) “Vayomru laymor,” and they spoke, saying. That is to say, the song which they spoke then, caused them to continue uttering song in all generations.

After all, why was this song so powerful? Perhaps because it was uttered in perfect faith. It was not sung because of the impact or the impression of the miracles that had taken place. Because the impact of miracles is only momentary, whereas true faith is forever enduring. Finally, after much reluctance, Israel came to the realization at the seashore that all the bondage and affliction that they had endured until then was a testing and purification, an act of G-d’s eternal lovingkindness. In all the Torah, G-d speaks and the people of Israel listen. In this portion, the people of Israel speak, and all the Hosts of Heaven listened because of its power, its sensitivity, and its purity of faith.

Have you ever stopped for a moment to ponder the nature of poetry or the nature of music? Why should the combination of random sounds or random words, especially sounds without words, have such a profound impact on the human soul? Why should rhythm and rhyme be any different from any other combination of noises that are uttered by the human throat? Why should music, which is after all, only an organized or disorganized series of sounds of different lengths and different pitches, speak to us so profoundly? There really is no rhyme or reason, except to say that song is a gift of G-d. Song can make us laugh. Song can make us cry. Song can make us grieve, and song can make us overcome grief.

According to Jewish tradition, all song emanates from the purity and devotion of the song that the People of Israel sang 3311 years ago at the crossing of the Red Sea.

May your lives be filled with joy, and may song burst forth from every human throat to declare that G-d is the source of all goodness. May His blessing prevail over all.

May you be blessed.