The Song at the Sea – a Higher Perspective
By Yehudis Litvak
Their lives were pure misery until a year before the events in this week’s parsha. Enslaved in Egypt, bnei Yisrael were subjected to the cruelest treatment imaginable. Awakened before dawn, they were forced to do work they weren’t naturally suited for, and punished harshly when they made the slightest mistake. Their newborn babies were snatched away from them and thrown into the Nile river. Only the hope for a better future kept them going, until finally, the ten plagues began, throwing their masters into turmoil. A year later, after witnessing one open miracle after another, they left Egypt, following their leader Moshe into the desert, to serve Hashem.
But after a week of traveling through the desert, they found themselves trapped. They were pursued by the Egyptian army, and the way forward was blocked by a seemingly endless sea. Miraculously, the sea split, and the bnei Yisrael crossed it as a dry land. When they reached the other side, the waters came together again, drowning the mighty Egyptian army.
The Jewish people’s reaction to their miraculous salvation was unprecedented – “Moshe and bnei Yisrael sang this song to Hashem” (Exodus 15:1). The Nesivos Shalom questions how the experience of splitting of the sea was different from their previous experiences with miracles, such as the ten plagues. For a whole year, they’d been witnessing miracles, but they didn’t sing any songs. Even when they finally left Egypt and headed towards freedom they did not erupt in song.
Moreover, the song at the sea is the first song mentioned in the Torah. The Nesivos Shalom brings a midrash in Shemos Rabba: “From the day that Hakadosh Baruch Hu created the world until the Jewish people stood at the sea no human being sang a song to Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Only the Jewish people [sang a song after the splitting of the sea].” Other people experienced miracles – Adam Harishon, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov – but no one was moved to song, until the sea split before the Jewish people, and they broke into a song.
Clearly, shira – song – is a much deeper way of praising Hashem than any praise expressed previously by the patriarchs. The Nesivos Shalom explains that shira comes from a great revelation. At the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people saw clearly that everything that Hashem does is good and kind. This wasn’t an abstract concept or a philosophical precept. They rose to such a high level that they were able to observe all of creation from a much higher vantage point, from where they saw that all the suffering they experienced in Egypt was for the good.
Let’s take a step back. Remember, these people witnessed their own babies murdered in front of their own eyes. How could this have been for the good? What could they have possibly seen to convince them so?
True, their story had reached a happy ending. They had reason to believe that their lives from that moment on would be lived happily ever after. But do the ends justify the means? Is murder ever justified, even if there is a happy ending later on?
It was more than the end that the bnei Yisrael saw at the sea. Another midrash teaches that even a simple maidservant saw more at the splitting of the sea than the prophet Yechezkel saw in his vision of the Heavenly chariot.
Yechezkel saw how the Heavens work. The bnei Yisrael at the sea saw how the earth works. The Nesivos Shalom explains that they rose above their physical bodies, to the level of angels. They saw what this world looks like from an above-worldly perspective, unmarred by our human biases. From that vantage point, all the puzzle pieces that make up the physical world fell into place. The puzzle formed a complete picture. This world, and the way Hashem runs this world, finally made sense. It became clear to them why every single detail of their lives was necessary in order to complete the puzzle. They saw the reason for the suffering, and even for the deaths of their babies.
Note that it wasn’t an intellectual understanding that they reached, but a perspective that is only possible when rising above all physical limitations, including the intellect. Intellectually, we cannot comprehend Hashem’s ways. Within our human experience, we cannot justify or excuse suffering and murder, and Hashem doesn’t expect us to do so. In fact, He made sure to punish the Egyptians for their cruelty, and to make their punishment known to the Jewish people.
Parenthetically, we see from this that if anyone is going through suffering, it is not appropriate for others to console them by suggesting that their suffering is for the good. While it may be true from an angel’s perspective, for as long as we remain inside our human bodies, we cannot see that perspective. The only consolation we can offer is truly sharing their pain.
But let’s return to the song at sea. We now understand the difference between praising Hashem for something specific and singing shira to Hashem. When we experience something good and want to express our gratitude, we might erupt in profuse thanks, but usually our thanks is not complete. If we think hard, we’ll come up with something else that’s bothering us, some problem that hasn’t yet been resolved. Perhaps we feel upset about it, or wish Hashem would help us with it. Somewhere deep inside our consciousness, we might harbor doubts and resentments.
Shira, on the other hand, is an expression of full and complete gratitude, unhindered by any underlying resentments or dissatisfaction. It stems from a sincere feeling that everything Hashem does is good.
Once the bnei Yisrael reached such a high level at the splitting of the sea, they were able to draw this inspiration down to the physical world. While we can’t access its full extent at will, the Nesivos Shalom explains that we can experience aspects of shira every Shabbos, when we receive an additional neshama, which allows us to separate ourselves temporarily from the physical world and enjoy greater closeness to Hashem.
If that’s the case every Shabbos, how much more so is this the case this Shabbos, parshas Beshalach, which is also called Shabbos Shira because of the shira we read in the parsha. “Shabbos Shira is an aspect of Shir Hashirim, Kodesh Kedoshim,” says the Nesivos Shalom.
Yehudis Litvak is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and author of two Young Adult novels, Swords and Scrolls (http://jewishchildrensbookclub.com/bookstore/#!/Swords-and-Scrolls/p/71828515/category=20891129) and Spies and Scholars (http://jewishchildrensbookclub.com/bookstore/#!/Spies-and-Scholars/p/95264172/category=20891129).
Her passion is teaching Torah through literature, and she blogs about it at www.torahthroughliterature.com.