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Parashat Hashavua Beshalach 2010 / 5770 - The Song of the Sea, and the Power of Personal Expression

01.02.2010 by

This week, in parshat Beshalach, the Israelites leave Egypt, and finally get rid of the Egyptians for good at the splitting of the Reed Sea. The scene is extraordinarily dramatic: the newly-freed slaves are in the desert, with Pharaoh's chariots closing in on them on one side, and the sea on the other. Miraculously, the sea splits, they walk through it, and it then closes in on the pursuing Egyptians, drowning them. This really is the end of the nation's bitter experience of slavery.  Seeing the hand of God in the destruction of the Egyptian forces, Moshe and the Israelites respond in this way: "And Israel saw the mighty hand which God had brought down upon Egypt, and the nation feared God, and they believed in his servant, Moshe. And then Moshe and the children of Israel will sing this song to God, and they said: Iwill sing to God for He is great, horse and rider he cast down in the sea." The song that follows is known as shirat hayam, the song of the sea, and is also known by the first two words of the verse, quoted above, which introduces the song itself "az yashir"- "then will sing". (This epic poem, which goes on for a while, is traditionally recited in its entirety every day at morning prayers.) After it's over, Miriam the prophetess, sister of Moshe and Aharon, goes out with the women, tambourine in hand, and also sings an apparently abbreviated version of the song.

I'd like to focus on the difficult words which preface the song itself, and by which it is known, "az yashir": "And then Moshe and the children of Israel will sing this song to God...". The grammar is difficult; surely "and then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song to God" would make more sense. Why is it written "az yashir Moshe- "and then Moshe will sing" - in the future tense, and not "az shar Moshe", "and then Moshe sang", in the past?

Some of the commentaries take a grammatical or linguistic approach. The Ibn Ezra says that that's how Hebrew works (I won't go into the details). Nachmanides says that the narrator of the Torah sometimes puts himself in the action, rather than telling it like a story which has already taken place, and therefore often uses the present or future tenses to describe things as they are happening or are about to happen. Famously, the Rabbis of the Talmud see the use of the future tense as the Torah's proof of the existence of the world to come  - the song was not only sung at the splitting of the Sea: in the future, Moshe, once again, "will sing" this song, that future being the next world.

Rashi, however, takes a different approach, and I'd like to look at it. He says that the Torah, with the use of the future tense in the phrase az yashir,  is going beyond a simple description of events. Az yashir tells us what Moshe was feeling, and thinking, before he started singing. This is how Rashi explains it: "and then, when he saw the miracle, he felt in his heart that he should sing a song...his heart told him to sing, and that is what he did."  In other words, az yashir does not refer to the singing itself, rather, it refers to the inner workings of Moshe's heart, it tells us that his heart told him to sing, and then he starting singing.

This is, it seems to me, remarkable. Although various bits of the Bible do seem to be written by an omniscient narrator, who tells us what people are thinking, here, the point is not the narrator's omniscience, but, rather, the Torah's decision to report in this roundabout way the seemingly simple and straightforward act of singing a song of praise and thanksgiving. The Torah goes out of its way to write the verse in this strange fashion - "then Moshe will sing", rather than "then Moshe sang" - just to let us know about the moment before the singing, when Moshe, in his heart, was moved to sing. Surely, just about every act we do, other than jerking our knee in response to the doctor's little hammer, is preceded by a moment or two of thought - we want to or are moved to do something, and then we do it. But who, when reporting an action, bothers to point out that first we were moved to do it?  Just say "and then he kissed her", or "and then he strangled him" and we will understand that, just before doing those things, our hero was moved to do so. Why point out to us that Moshe was first moved to sing - just tell us he started singing.  All the motivation we need to know about is already there in the narrative itself: the sea, the miracle, the dead Egyptians. What more are we taught by this awkward phrase, whose only message is that Moshe was motivated to sing and then sang?

It would seem that the point of the "az yashir"  is to tell us about the importance of motivation, here, and in general. By motivation I don't simply mean that the song was sung as a result of the miraculous events which preceded it. That would have been clear without "az yashir", az shar would have been enough:"and then Moshe and the Israelites sang this song", and we would certainly, based on the story itself, know the reason behind the singing. The point of az yashir is to tell us that Moshe and the Israelites were moved: they acted out of a deep, inner, personal feeling, from the heart, rather than from some sense of external pressure, commandedness, tradition, or obligation. Their hearts told them what to do, what to say and sing, and the result is the poem we have in the Torah.

This understanding certainly seems to underscore the value of the deeply felt inner emotion, as opposed to a sense of obligation, as motivation for a religious expression. It is as if the Torah is saying: "hey, get this, this song is the real thing, it is special, because it came directly from the heart, from an emotional compulsion to sing it. This, therefore, is really worth paying attention to."

One often hears the opinion that acting out of a sense of religious obligation is seen as a bad thing. Many feel that our religious or Jewish behavior should flow from an inner desire and conviction, a sense that this is what one personally wants to do, rather than out of a sense of duty or obligation. Although Kant would probably take exception to this view, as would a number of Jewish thinkers, Rashi's take on az yashir  would seem to agree: what's specialabout the Song of the Sea is that it came from the heart, from a deeply felt emotion. The expression of that inner compulsion, the Song of the Sea, is given a very special place indeed, in the Torah and in our liturgy, thereby emphasizing the value and strength of such spontaneous, personal feelings and their expression.

It's also worth noting that these emotions, rather than being articulated in the Torah's usual prose, are presented as a song, a poem, with, at least in the case of Miriam and the women, some musical accompaniment. Today, in the synagogue, there is even a special tune to which the entire Song of the Sea is read, different from the usual one. It may be that, in trying to give voice to his inner feelings, Moshe was moved to use a more artistic mode; the only way to describe hisfeelings, and to express them to others, to get this particularly personal message  across, was to use a language and style different from those used to describe more mundane matters, things which are less heartfelt. When what needs to be said is personal, overwhelming ("his heart told him to sing"), and deeply felt, an artistic, poetic expression is called for, in order to fully and truly give it expression. Prose will not do.

There is a poem by Billy Collins which, I think, describes the power of art - song, poetry, music - and the insufficiency of every-day speech, to express that which we most deeply feel and want to communicate.

The Blues

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn't even stop to say goodbye.

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent and beseeching key,

people will not only listen;
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you're a hard-hearted man
but that woman's sure going to make you cry.     

Shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Shimon Felix

The point of az yashir is to tell us that Moshe and the Israelites were moved: they acted out of a deep, inner, personal feelingRabbi Shimon

Torah Portion Summary - Beshalach


In Beshalach, the Israelites are trapped between the oncoming Egyptians, who regret having freed them, and the Reed Sea. The sea splits, the Egyptians are drowned, and the nation begins its journey to the Promised Land of Israel.

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