Beshalach: Letter Perfect


By Rabbi Nosson Greenberg

In this week’s parsha we learn about the shira, the reaction of the bnai Yisrael after their miraculous journey through the Yam Suf and their salvation from the clutches of the Mitzriyim. This shira, of course, is also a part of our daily tefillah. If we take a look at the commentators of the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, Siman 51) we find that a seemingly inordinate emphasis is placed on the recital of the shira. The Bais Yosef tells us that extreme care must be taken when pronouncing the two similar words “chamocha” and “kamocha”: that the first must be with a chaph-without a dagesh, whereas the second must be with a dagesh. Similarly the caph of “yidmu ka’aven” should never be pronounced “cha’aven” with a chaph. The reason he gives for this demanded accuracy is to protect the kavod of Hashem, for the mispronunciation might sound like words that are derogatory and perhaps blasphemous. This caution seems to be unique to the Shira for there are many other places that similar vocal minefields exist, yet extra care is not demanded in those places. [The only other place we have such a focus on the correct pronunciation of words is of course the kriyas Shema. But that is understandable because it is a mitzvas asai to recite the Shema and the correct pronunciation is thus vital.]

Perhaps we can explain as follows. The Ba’al Haturim (Devarim, 3:23) quotes a Sifri who tells us that when Moshe davened to Hashem to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael he sang a shira. Says the Ba’al Haturim this shira is hinted at by the Torah for the gematria of shira (515) is the same as the word the Torah uses for Moshe’s tefillah– “Va’eschanan”. Why did Moshe use song at that particular time? The answer I believe is that the definition of a shira is a tefillah that is expressed at a time of complete and utter simchas hachayim – joy of life. That joy can be attained in many ways. The world says “Ain simcha ke’hataras hasefaikos” – “there is no joy like one who has had his uncertainties of life resolved” (See Metzudos David, Mishlei, 15, 30). Moshe stood uncertainly before his Creator and davened 515 times to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. He davened until Hashem said “No more davening, the answer is No!” And at that point Moshe’s uncertainties vanished and as a true eved Hashem he accepted the decision which brought with it a clarity of his future. And that allowed Moshe to sing. He sang the praises of being part of a planet and a people whose hashgacha is in the Hands of the Ribono Shel Olam. Similarly at Yam Suf the Yidden had 210 years of uncertainties removed from their minds as they saw the bodies of the Mitzriyim being washed up on the shores. And with simcha rabbah (as we say in shachris) they burst into song.

Now we can understand why shira demands an elocution of the highest level. For they are words that were uttered from minds and hearts of serenity and certainty. Which makes the words of the shira of similar caliber. Thus, there is no room for typos and mispronunciations or even the whisper of mis-understandings of the words being sung.

It is interesting to note that Pirkei D’Rebbe Elazar (Perek 43) tells us that Par’oh was the first to utter the words “Mi chamocha ba’ailim Hashem, mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh” when he finally came to the realization that Hashem is G-d.  Even though he knew not of the Bais Yosef and his reasons for the caph and chaph, his heart at that moment had reached a perfect clarity of life (and perhaps death) and instinctively guided his mouth to get the pronunciation perfect. As we say in davening, “Ve’amru kulam” – they all got it right on that day.

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Nosson Greenberg is rov of Khal Machzikei Torah of Far Rockaway, N.Y., and maggid shiur at Yeshiva of Far Rockaway.

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