This Shabbat, on which we read the Torah portion of בשלח (Beshalach), is called שבת שירה (Shabbat Shira), the Sabbat of the Song, because this portion contains the song that the Jewish people sang to Hashem in appreciation for the salvation from the pursuing Egyptian army at the Reed Sea.
The Sages pose a question: Last week’s Torah portion detailed the Jews’ actually leaving Egypt, yet that Shabbat carries no special name. Next week, we will read the account of the receiving of the Torah on Sinai, and, again, that Shabbat has no special name. Why this week, when we read about the Jewish people’s song, does our tradition vest the Shabbat with this special appellation?
The Chiddushei HaRim (the first Gerrer rebbe, d.1866) answers that a song in the Torah must be specially written by the scribe so that when we read the Torah scroll we see the song written before us. Hence, this Shabbat is called “the Shabbat of the Song.” In this case, the writing resembles brickwork, one block of words sitting on top of two other blocks of words. Here is what the first few lines look like in actual sefer Torah:
This answer, however, leaves much to be desired. So what that it is written like a song? How does that answer the question?
The word שיר (shir) in Hebrew means a song, but not just any song. In Talmudic usage, the word shir also means a bracelet or necklace – something round. What is the significance of it being round? A person spontaneously erupts in a shir when has just experienced salvation from a difficult series of events, which seemed to have nothing to do with each other, although in retrospect he realizes that each was an essential step in a sequence that ultimately brought forth that salvation. Each event formed part of a process that from the outset had been set into motion to reach this conclusion; now, for the first time, things have come full circle, and the progression can be seen. Recognizing that the difficulties endured constituted deliberately planned steps in the salvation transforms each of those difficulties into an independent reason for thanks. And the greater the difficulties, the deeper the thanks. This sudden turnabout in understanding evokes such a deep sense of gratitude that the only appropriate reaction is to spontaneously break out in song.
This is what had happened to the Jewish people. They had left Egypt and it seemed as if they were well on their way to Mount Sinai. Then, they were told to go back to Pi Hachirot, and to camp in front of the Reed Sea, which they had just passed. It seemed that they were walking straight into the lion’s mouth! Sure enough, Pharaoh came racing after them with 600 chariots and all the mounted soldiers in the army. The Jewish people, trapped with no escape, were petrified. They complained bitterly to Moshe for getting them into this situation. “Aren’t there enough graves in Egypt? Why did you have to bring us out here to die?”
The Torah tells us in Exodus 13:20:
ספר שמות פרק יג
כ) וַיִּסְעוּ מִסֻּכֹּת וַיַּחֲנוּ בְאֵתָם בִּקְצֵה הַמִּדְבָּר
20) And they travelled from Succot, and they camped at Eitam at the edge of the desert.
Just four verses later, Hashem commands Moshe to tell the Jewish people to go back to Succot, in front of Pi HaChirot, between Migdol and Baal Tzefon, opposite the sea.
ספר שמות פרק יד
ב) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיָשֻׁבוּ וְיַחֲנוּ לִפְנֵי פִּי הַחִירֹת בֵּין מִגְדֹּל וּבֵין הַיָּם לִפְנֵי בַּעַל צְפֹן נִכְחוֹ תַחֲנוּ עַל הַיָּם
Despite this seeming suicidal, the Jewish people listened to Hashem and returned. When they lifted their eyes, they saw the entire Egyptian army pursuing them. Just the sound of the hoofs of the horses and chariots was terrifying. They thought they were toast with nowhere to go. Then Hashem split the sea, and they went through. When the Egyptians followed them in, the water came crashing down, drowning them all.
Studying the above graphic depiction of their journey discloses a significant problem: It seems that the fleeing Israelites didn’t cross the sea at all! Rather, simply did a turnaround, exiting the sea on the very side that they entered it! Additionally, had they actually crossed the sea, they would have been close to Eitam, where they were before they were commanded to go back to Pi Hachirot. So, if they could have just walked around the sea, what was the need for the whole miracle?
The answers to these questions are what, when realized by the Jewish people, caused them to break out in song. They recognized that this series of events was Hashem’s stratagem to lure Pharaoh’s entire army into the sea where they would perish. When the Jewish people seemingly retreated, Pharaoh figured that they were lost and in a panic and would thus be easy targets. They were also camped right in front of Pharaoh’s last remaining god, Baal Tzefon. He alone stood fast against the G-d of the Jews, and, the Egyptians believed, would be there to help. This would be, a piece of cake.
Suddenly, fire and hailstones started pelting the Egyptians. Becoming disoriented, they began charging forward, right into the sea! They couldn’t control their horses, which dragged them into the sea where they drowned. The Sea then regurgitated their bodies onto the land so that the Jewish people could see that the Egyptian pursuers were no more. Had the Jewish people continued on their way to Mount Sinai from Eitam, Pharaoh eventually would have overtaken them.
The Israelites also received a bonus. The Midrash tells us that the Egyptians customarily went to war wearing all their wealth, their necklaces and bracelets of gold and silver, diamonds, and other precious stones. This gave them the incentive to fight with everything that they had, for, if they were to lose, they would lose everything. The spoils recovered at the sea from the drowned Egyptians far exceeded the great wealth that the Jewish people took with them when they left Egypt.
Looking back, the Jewish people realized that this was Hashem’s strategy from the get-go, how Hashem had planned to kill the Egyptians and give the Jewish people their wealth.
This may be why this shir in the Torah is written this way and perhaps provides the value of actually seeing how it is written. Imagine walking along the lines of the song. The first line is nice and even, and things are going along swimmingly well. But as you progress, you come to pitfalls and walls to climb and then more pitfalls. It looks like these ups and downs have nothing to do with each other and lead nowhere. But when you stand back and look at the complete picture, you realize there is a fine symmetry and an exact formula. It was initially designed this way, and the ups and downs are what give the picture its unique character. This mirrors closely the events that lead to a “shir.”
Calling this Shabbat “Shabbat Shira” reminds us to contemplate this concept and apply its lesson to our own lives. How so?
Each of us was created different than any other person on the planet, now and ever, in the past and the future. Starting with our inborn qualities and personality, all the way to our parents and the surrounding environment, literally billions of factors and events influence who we are and how we developed into the person we currently are. And we are not finished growing! Indeed, we must continuously improve and perfect ourselves.
We are different because each of us has a unique mission to accomplish during our lifetime. The gifts that Hashem has endowed us with, constitute the tools that we need to accomplish our mission, which we will accomplish through the choices we make when facing life’s variegated challenges. Each challenge provides us with a new opportunity to advance to a higher level and is carefully planned and sequenced to build on the other to advance us on our path, collectively bringing us to our personal mission’s fulfillment.
When understood this way, life resembles a shir. From the moment of our birth, we embarked upon a carefully planned sequence of experiences that will ultimately conclude with the fulfillment of our unique purpose. We come full circle. But if we do not see life as a continuum, as a progression towards a goal, then there is no connection between one event and another. Life is then just a jumble of experiences with no meaning or value.
As we progress through life and negotiate its challenges, we often don’t see the connections or understand how they help us to advance. They seem like unrelated episodes that are just there to make life difficult. We cannot figure out the purpose for any of it. It is like the brickwork of the shir. Travelling through it, we cannot see the big picture. All that we perceive is the pitfall directly in front of us or the steep wall that we need to climb. When we are in the shir we cannot appreciate its symmetry or beauty. Only after we have completed our journey can we look back at the whole picture and see the precision with which it was made.
The Talmud tells us that at the end of a person’s life, he will be shown a review of his life’s deeds. He will acknowledge each of them, and then he will thank Hashem for having judged him perfectly. At that time, he will see with absolute clarity how Hashem had carefully and perfectly planned each challenge or difficulty to bring him to the next step in his journey towards the achievement of his purpose in this world. He will see that Hashem planned everything perfectly, and how each step accomplished its purpose. He will see the shir of his life very clearly.
The Babylonian Talmud Tractate Taanit 11a says:
(5) תלמוד בבלי מסכת תענית דף יא:א
צדיק וישר הוא
The verse in Deuteronomy 32:4 says:
(1) ספר דברים פרק לב
(ד) הַצּוּר תָּמִים פָּעֳלוֹ כִּי כָל דְּרָכָיו מִשְׁפָּט אֵ-ל אֱמוּנָה וְאֵין עָוֶל צַדִּיק וְיָשָׁר הוא
4) The Rock! Perfect in His work, for all His paths are justice, a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He.
מלמד שבשעת פטירתו של אדם לבית עולמו כל מעשיו נפרטין לפניו – ולא עוד אלא שמצדיק עליו את הדין ואומר להם יפה דנתוני
This teaches us that when a person dies, all of his deeds are passed in front of him, and that he accepts Hashem’s judgements of him and says: “You have judged me fairly and properly.”
When we bear in mind that we are in the middle of a shir and that there is a “method to the madness,” we can keep a cool head and not be overwhelmed by the challenges. On the contrary, we should keep in mind that through the life that we are living, we are composing the most beautiful shir to Hashem, one that He has never heard before, and one that He will not hear from anyone else, ever. We are stringing notes that will ultimately join to become a most beautiful melody. This is our unique shir to Hashem, one that each of us actively composes daily.
At least once a year, we need to look at the shir that mirrors and describes the events of the Jewish people as they came to the Reed Sea and apply its lesson to our lives.
The Midrash tells us: Yalkut Shimoni (Joshua Chapter 10: 20)
ילקוט שמעוני יהושע – פרק י – רמז כ
עשר שירות הם … ואחד לעתיד לבא שנאמר שירו לה’ שיר חדש תהלתו בקהל חסידים.
There are only 10 songs. Nine have already been said, and the last one will be sung in the future, when the Mashiach comes.
The Midrash adds an interesting point.
שכל השירות שעברו קרויות בלשון נקבה כשם שהנקבה יולדת, כך התשועות שעברו היו אחריהם שעבוד. אבל התשועה העתידה לבא קרויה לשון זכר שאין אחריה שעבוד שנאמר, “ישראל נושע בה’ תשועת עולמים”
All the songs until now were written in scripture in the feminine form, שירה , because a woman can bring forth a child, and there were subjugations after the songs were sung. The last song is written in the masculine formשיר , since it will be the final song, and there will be no further subjugation after it.
This Midrash opens our eyes to a new perspective on this concept, one that not only applies to each of us, but also applies to the Jewish nation as it travels through history and executes its mission in the world. The nine shirs represent different stages and complete processes through which the Jewish people would pass. At the end of each process, a shir will be sung to commemorate that cycle’s successful completion; that things have come full circle. Each of the nine, however, would be but a stepping stone to the next one. Just as a woman gives birth to a child, so, too, each cycle would bring forth the next stage in the process.
The Midrash explains that the shir said after the splitting of the Reed Sea was the second shir. The first one was the הלל (Hallel) recited while the Jews ate the Pascal offering at the seder the night before they left Egypt, the first night of Passover. This was a shir that encompassed all of the events up to that point. The process of freeing the Jewish nation from Egypt actually gave way to the next challenge at the Reed Sea, and the journey through the desert, bringing forth two more shirs, each of which brought the Jewish nation to a new level.
We will sing the tenth and final shir when the Jewish nation have completed all the necessary processes that were prescribed for their role in this world, a song that we hope to sing very soon when the Mashiach comes. We will then see for the first time how all the difficult and trying times that the Jewish people have endured over the years were actually the very components that ultimately led to the final redemption. Recognizing this, we will all spontaneously break out in the final shir. May we all merit this auspicious occasion speedily in our time.