Parshat Beshalach תשפב

This Shabbat, on which we read the Torah portion ofבשלח  (Beshalach), is called  שבת שירה  (Shabbat Shira),the “Shabbat of the Song,” because this sedra (portion) contains the song that the Jewish people sang to Hashem in appreciation for the salvation that they experienced from the pursuing Egyptian army at the Reed (not “Red” as is commonly translated) Sea. 

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 circle, for example, comprises a sequence of points placed one after the other such that the last dot in the circle comes around to connect to the first dot that began the circle. As we add points to create the circle, we don’t necessarily see where they are going or how their placement is crucial for the final outcome. When, however, we insert the final point, we recognize retroactively that this dot (and all the others), were planned and expected when the first dot was placed on the paper. Each point on the circle is also critical to the circle, because, without it, the circle is broken and incomplete. Finally, in a perfect circle, we know from the very first arc that if the circle continues like this, the last dot will connect to the first one.

When a person undergoes circumstances that resemble a circle, it is time to recite a shir. How is that? 

Sometimes when a person experiences a difficult series of events, while he is going through them, they seem to have little to do with one another. Yet when the salvation comes, in retrospect he realizes that each event was part of a series that from its inception was set into motion to reach this conclusion. In the midst of those events, it was impossible to perceive the connection. Only now, for the first time, as things have come “full circle,” does the progression become apparent. Recognizing that the difficulties endured constituted deliberately planned steps essential for the salvation, transforms each of those difficulties into an independent reason for thanks. And the greater the difficulties, the deeper the thanks should be for the salvation. This sudden turnabout in understanding evokes such a deep sense of gratitude that the spontaneous reaction to it is to break out in a song of thanksgiving. 

            This is what happened to the Jewish people. They were freed from Egyptian bondage, and it seemed that they were well on their way to Mount Sinai. But then they were told to return to Pi Hachirot, and to camp in front of the Reed Sea, which they had just passed! It seemed that they were walking right back into the lion’s mouth! Sure enough, Pharaoh came racing after them with 600 chariots and all of his army’s mounted soldiers.  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.

(This is represented by the arrow going from Succot to Eitam)

            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

(This is the arrow going in the opposite direction, retracing their steps back to Succot)

            Despite this seeming suicidal, the Jewish people listened to Hashem and returned to Succot. But 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 that they were finished with nowhere to go. Then, at the last moment, 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 shows that the fleeing Israelites didn’t cross the sea at all! Rather, they 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 went 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 the Jewish people realized it, 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 it would perish. For when the Jewish people seemingly retreated, Pharaoh thought that they were in a panic and confused and would be easy targets. They were also camped right in front of Pharaoh’s last remaining god, Baal Tzefon. The Egyptians believed that he alone stood fast against the G-d of the Jews. With him there to help recapturing the Jews 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, when the miraculous split ended, they drowned. The Sea then regurgitated their bodies onto the shore so that the Jewish people could see that their Egyptian pursuers were no more. 

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 Sages tell us that the sea as well expelled all the Egyptian’s precious possessions, and 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. His plan was to kill the Egyptians and give their wealth to the Jews. After all was said and done, they realized that every difficult step was part of that carefully planned series designed to bring forth their ultimate salvation and wellbeing. When this reality set in, they all spontaneously broke out into a shir – a song of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. 

A person need not wait until put through a difficult ordeal and be saved from it to sing a song of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. Every second a person is alive, provides ample reason for a song of praise and thanksgiving to Hashem. Nachmanides writes (Exodus 13:16):

וכוונת כל המצות שנאמין באלקינו ונודה אליו שהוא בראנו, והיא כוונת היצירה, שאין לנו טעם אחר ביצירה הראשונה, ואין אל עליון חפץ בתחתונים מלבד שידע האדם ויודה לאלהיו שבראו, וכוונת רוממות הקול בתפלות וכוונת בתי הכנסיות וזכות תפלת הרבים, זהו שיהיה לבני אדם מקום יתקבצו ויודו לקל שבראם והמציאם ויפרסמו זה ויאמרו לפניו בריותיך אנחנו

The goal of all the mitzvot is, that through them we demonstrate our belief in Hashem and give thanks to Him that He created us – For that is the reason for creation! There could be no other purpose for Hashem creating man other than this. Hashem wants nothing more from man than for him to know that Hashem created him and for him to thank Hashem for having done so. 

We learn from Nachmanides that just being alive and coherent is reason enough to sing Hashem’s praises. “Thank you, Hashem, for creating me and giving me a life!!!” 

So we ask: What’s so good about just being alive that we need to thank Hashem for it all the time? 

If we were to view ourselves as servants of our great and brilliant Creator, we would be filled with feelings of gratitude and thanksgiving for the privilege of being His servants. 

The whole thing is a ruse. Hashem created us to bestow His great goodness upon us. The pleasure Hashem has in store for us is beyond description. But, we have to do something to earn it, so He says, “Thank Me for creating you, and with that you will receive the most amazing reward possible!” This is a very good reason to thank Hashem for allowing you to have a life, indeed, every second of that life. 

Our Sages teach us that, in reality, every creation on the planet sings praises to Hashem. The heavens and the earth and everything in them, the plants, birds, fish, animals, and even insects, all sing praises to Hashem. The praises they sing are quoted in a Mishnaic text called, פרק שירה  – The Chapter of Song. Its six chapters list the various verses from scripture that the creations sing. 

For example, what song does the ant sing before Hashem? It’s the verse in Proverbs (6:6):

(ו) לֵךְ אֶל נְמָלָה עָצֵל רְאֵה דְרָכֶיהָ וַחֲכָם

6) Go to the ant, lazy one; see its ways and become wise.

Ants scoot around, they never walk. 

See its ways, and become wise

A lazy person is told to observe the quickness of the ant, and learn from it. The Malbim explains how:  

Every quality found in any creature on the planet is also found in a human being. So if a person is naturally lazy and thinks, “I can’t move fast, I just don’t have it in me,” take a lesson from the ant. An ant scoots around all day collecting little nuggets of food. During his six-month life span, an ant will collect enough food to feed him for thousands of months. This quality was placed in the ant for you to learn from it how you should be swift to gather wisdom. 

Our Sages explain that the animals themselves are unable to sing songs to Hashem. So what does it mean that they “Sing praises to Hashem?”   

Much the way a magnificent painting sings the praises of the artist who painted it, or a beautiful symphony sings the praises of its composer, the creations on the planet sing the praises of their Creator. They give us pause as we contemplate the brilliance and ingenuity of their Creator. They are each a testimonial to Hashem, their Creator. 

The Midrash tell us an interesting story ((ילקוט שמעוני על תהלים רמז תתפט.

אמרו על דוד המלך בשעה שסיים ספר תהלים זחה דעתו עליו אמר לפניו רבש”ע כלום יש דבר בעולם שאמר שירה כמותי, נזדמנה לו צפרדע אחת אמרה לו אל תזוח דעתך עליך שאני אומרת שירה יותר ממך

It is said about King David that when He completed the book of Tehilim- Psalms- he felt a surge of pride in himself and said to Hashem, “Master of the Universe, is there another creature in the world that sang songs of praise to You as I did in my book of Tehillim?” A frog hopped up to him and said to him, “Don’t feel so good about yourself because I sing songs of praise to Hashem more than you do!” 

All a frog does is “croak,” 24/7/365. Whoever suspected that the lowly frog was singing songs of praise to Hashem? This is the lesson that the frog was teaching King David. “I am the only creature on the planet that makes noise all the time. With that noise I announce my existence and the greatness of my Creator to the entire world. As beautiful as your Tehillim are, I am still broadcasting (croaking) Hashem 24/7/365, and you can’t do that!”

It seems that the frog won the argument with King David and that he was better at singing Hashem’s praises than even King David! If the frog can outdo King David, similarly every creature on the planet that is continuously singing its song of praise to Hashem with its very existence is better than we are. Even an ant is better at praising Hashem than we are! How could that be? 

The answer is although they may have quantity over us, we have quality over them. The praise of a thinking, choosing human being, even though it may be intermittent, trumps the praises of those who do so mindlessly. This is because a human is not bound by his nature to recognize Hashem. He has the freedom to choose not to see Hashem if he so wishes. A person cannot be made to believe something that he does not want to believe. On the contrary, it is so much easier to forget about Hashem and become completely involved in ourselves. One must work very hard to look beyond himself and recognize his Creator. It is ever more difficult to come to a point in life where you grasp that the greatest possible thing you can do in life is to thank Hashem for your existence and your ability to choose to serve Him. This puts you in the highest possible place in the creation, for you are fulfilling your purpose for being here. You are giving Hashem the excuse to give you the reward He placed you here to receive. 

There is something else to consider thanking Hashem for. That is, that you are of the privileged few who even know that there is such a concept as thanking Hashem for having created us. How many people know why they are alive, and why they were given a life altogether? Unfortunately, very few. We have to feel so special to be of the select few who know that Hashem is real, and, as such, can consider thanking Him for creating us. 

            Maimonides writes (Yesodei Hatorah Chapter 2, Law 2):

(ב) והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים ויראה מהן חכמתו שאין לה ערך ולא קץ מיד הוא אוהב ומשבח ומפאר ומתאוה תאוה גדולה לידע השם הגדול כמו שאמר דוד צמאה נפשי לאלהים לאל חי וכשמחשב בדברים האלו עצמן מיד הוא נרתע לאחוריו ויפחד ויודע שהוא בריה קטנה שפלה אפלה עומדת בדעת קלה מעוטה לפני תמים דעות

            And how can a person come to love and fear Hashem? When a person ponders Hashems deeds, and His amazing and great creations and he sees the infinite wisdom inherent in them, immediately he will be filled with love and praise for Hashem, and feel a deep desire to know the great Hashem … then, and as he thinks more deeply about these ideas, he is immediately taken aback, and filled with awe, because he knows that he is just a fragile lowly creature with a meager understanding in the presence of an all-knowing Hashem. 

            And to think, this amazing Hashem has created me, little ol’ me, to stand before Him and serve Him! I should jump for joy every second that I have the merit to stand before Hashem and thank Him for creating me!

             A question remains. A שיר  – shir– is both a round object and the name of a song sung when one sees that matters have come full circle and all was for the best. How does this apply to Hashem’s creations? The name of the text referring to the songs they sing is called Perek Shira – The Chapter of the Song. How can it be called a shir if there is no process involved in their song? 

                  In the Midrash about King David, the frog continues to say:

ולא עוד אלא שאני עוסקת במצוה גדולה וזו היא מצוה שאני עוסקת בה יש בשפת הים מין אחד שאין פרנסתו כי אם מן המים ובשעה שהוא רעב  נוטלני ואוכלני זו היא המצוה 

Not only that, but there is another great mitzvah that I do, and this is it. There is a creature that lives on the shores who has nothing to eat. When it gets hungry, he takes me and eats me. This is the mitzvah. 

There definitely is a cycle in nature – the cycle of the food chain. The larger animals eat the smaller and the smaller eat the smaller still. Each creature proclaims the brilliance of his Creator by showing off its unique qualities; how it survives in the elements; how it catches its prey; how it escapes its predators; how it procreates, and how it protects and raises its young. 

From the frog we learn that they allow themselves to be caught by their predators so they can fulfill Hashem’s will by providing a meal for another creature. This keeps Hashem’s world running properly by keeping Hashem’s creation in balance. Each creature is a dot in a huge circle of predator/prey throughout the entire living creation. Viewing each creature as part of a cycle makes its song so much more powerful. They not only announce their personal creation, they also proclaim the creation of the entire animal kingdom by the same Creator. 

This concept applies to all the cycles in nature. The water cycle, the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, etc. As each component in the cycle performs its function necessary to complete the circle of the process, the handiwork of the Creator becomes more evident. How much more eloquent is the message of nature when all the different cycles depend on each other to create one great cycle comprising all the different cycles, one that allows the world to operate properly. This is indeed the case with our planet. 

So, are we going to let the creatures in the world outdo us in praising Hashem, or are we going to choose to use our freedom of choice to praise Hashem for having created us and dwarf all of them with that one choice? The choice is yours!

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