“Analysis of the ‘Shira,’ the Song of Moses Crossing the Sea”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, as they cross to freedom through the parted waters of the sea, Moses and the Children of Israel sing the “Shira,” the immortal song of Israel, praising G-d for the peoples’ salvation. Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Moses, also sings a brief song that is found in Exodus 15:20-21.

The song (Exodus 15:1-19) that Moses and the Israelites sang as they crossed the sea is one of the most glorious works of poetry in biblical literature, and is considered a composition of exalted spiritual status in Jewish tradition. The “Shira” begins with the words (Exodus 15:1) אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת  Then the Children of Israel will sing this song to G-d. Since the opening words are written in the future tense, tradition maintains that the faith and inspiration of this song will remain implanted in Jewish hearts for all ages, and that all songs of future generations will emanate from the power of this one song. (B’shalach 5760-2000)

The “Shira” is divided into five parts. In the opening three verses, Moses and the Israelites sing a song of praise to G-d, Who displayed His strength and greatness over the sea, rescuing the Children of Israel from the hands of Egypt. There is clearly only one hero in this song, and that is G-d. Moses calls out in ecstasy, Exodus 15:3, השם, אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה; השם, שְׁמוֹ  G-d is a man of war, G-d is His name.

The crossing of the Red Sea was a singular Divine act, never again replicated. All other battles recorded in Jewish history, such as those that were fought by Joshua in the conquest of Canaan, the wars led by Deborah, Saul, David and the other kings and leaders of Israel, were fought by the armies of Israel who took part in the battles and the victories. However, in the act of redeeming the Jews from Egypt, no other “power” was present but G-d, and the Israelites themselves played no role. The people were taken out of Egypt by G-d, and by G-d alone.

Before crossing the Red Sea, Moses announces to the people, (Exodus 14:13-14) אַל-תִּירָאוּ…השם, יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם; וְאַתֶּם, תַּחֲרִשׁוּן    Fear not, you stand here and see the salvation of G-d that He will cause today, for as you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall not see them ever again. G-d will do battle for you and you shall remain silent. The poem does not praise the People of Israel, nor is there the slightest acknowledgment of Moses. Even though Moses himself sang the song, his humility did not allow him to play any role in this song. Highlighting G-d’s greatness, G-d’s name is mentioned eleven times in the “Shira.” “G-d is the Man of War, G-d is His name,” etc. One cannot help note the frequent repetition of the name of G-d.

The second part of the “Shira,” consisting of Exodus 15:4-6, describes the sinking of the chariots of Pharaoh and the Egyptian army in the sea. This portion also concludes with the repetition of G-d’s name, יְמִינְךָ השם, נֶאְדָּרִי בַּכֹּחַ; יְמִינְך השם, תִּרְעַץ אוֹיֵב Your right hand, G-d, is glorified with strength, Your right hand, G-d, smashes the enemy.

The third section of the song, Exodus 15:7-11, speaks of the spirit (wind) of G-d, and draws a bold distinction between G-d and the enemy. Exodus 14:21 describes Moses’ outstretched hand over the sea and how G-d moved the sea with a רוּחַ קָדִים a strong east wind all night, until the bottom of the sea turned to damp land and the water split. Two verses describe the powerful impact of the Divine wind, Exodus 15:8, ּבְרוּחַ אַפֶּיךָ נֶעֶרְמוּ מַיִם  from the blast of Your nostrils the waters were heaped up. Exodus 15:10, נָשַׁפְתָּ בְרוּחֲךָ, כִּסָּמוֹ יָם You blew with Your winds, the sea enshrouded them. The Divine wind expresses both the wrath and the power of G-d.

The staccato nature of the words, (Exodus 15:9) אָמַר אוֹיֵב אֶרְדֹּף אַשִּׂיג, אֲחַלֵּק שָׁלָל  the enemy declared, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the plunder, reflects the breathlessness of the battle, and of the enemies running out of breath. This section also ends with exalted praise of the Al-mighty: (Exodus 15:11) מִי-כָמֹכָה בָּאֵלִם השם, מִי כָּמֹכָה נֶאְדָּר בַּקֹּדֶשׁ; נוֹרָא תְהִלֹּת, עֹשֵׂה  פֶלֶא Who is like You among the heavenly powers, Lord? Who is like You, mighty in holiness, too awesome for praise, Doer of wonders! Instead of repeating the name of G-d in this verse, מִי-כָמֹכָה  Who is like You? is repeated.

The fourth section of the song (Exodus 15:10-13) details the outcome of the event. The Egyptians drown in the sea and sink to the bottom of its waters. The nation that is redeemed by G-d will now be led to its Promised Land.

Exodus 15:14-16 states that the miraculous salvation of Israel by G-d will cause all the nations of the world, the Philistines, the Edomites, the Moabites and the Canaanites, to revere and fear the Jewish people. This fear will ease the people’s conquest of the land of Canaan and will continue until G-d brings His people to the land and settles them there. Exodus 15:16 concludes with the words, עַד יַעֲבֹר עַמְּךָ השם, עַד-יַעֲבֹר עַם-זוּ  קָנִיתָ until Your people passes through, L-rd, until this people that You have acquired, pass through. Although there is no repetition of G-d’s name in this verse, there is a repetition of the expression עַד יַעֲבֹר until they pass through.

The “Shira” concludes, Exodus 15:17-18, with a bold declaration, exalting the eternal kingship of G-d (Exodus 15:18), השם יִמְלֹךְ, לְעֹלָם וָעֶד the Lord shall reign forever and ever!

The song of the “Crossing the Sea,” is a victory song that expresses the feelings of joy and ecstasy of the People of Israel as they see what the great hand of G-d has done to Egypt. There are also expressions of thanksgiving to G-d and declarations of firm faith in G-d.

As previously noted, G-d is portrayed in the “Shira” as a Man of War, a powerful Fighter, Who does fierce battle with Egypt. He causes the chariots of Egypt to sink into the sea, and smites the enemy with His right hand. His anger is ignited by the cruelty of the Egyptians, and He sends forth His people, Israel, to freedom. The Egyptian army is portrayed as drowning in the depths of the sea, like stone, lead, and straw. There is a vivid portrayal of the splitting of the sea and the walls of the water that stood erect in the midst of the sea. There is a description of the grandeur of the enemy and the enemy’s certitude that they will emerge victorious. Scripture depicts the fear and terror that fell over all the nations. G-d, who leads His people into the wilderness, brings them to the Promised Land, where He plants them like a tree and builds for them the Holy Temple.

In this classic song, we see the continuing development of Moses as a maturing leader. Beginning as a stammerer and a stutterer, Moses has now become a poet and singer. Upon leaving the palace of Pharaoh, Moses struck a single Egyptian. Now he concludes by defeating the entirety of Egypt. Moses began his career as a “savior,” rescuing the daughters of Jethro from the hands of the Midianite shepherds. He now saves an entire nation, all his people, from the mighty Egyptians. Beginning his life as an “abandoned” infant crying in an ark, counting on the kindness of the Nile River to rescue him, Moses now orchestrates the splitting of an entire sea. As an inexperienced leader, Moses “cut his teeth” on a group of twelve disparate tribes, who have now become a powerful and great nation, and respond energetically and joyously to his song.

In light of the extraordinary beauty, grandeur and power of the “Shira,” one may wonder who could possibly compose the song of Israel’s final redemption. It will certainly be a hard act to follow.

May you be blessed.

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’shalach, we encounter the “Shira,” the historic song that Moses and the People of Israel sang as they crossed the Red (Reed) Sea. Because this song plays a central role in Jewish history and Jewish life, the Shabbat on which it is read is called Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song.  Click here for more information.