By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
Every Shabbos is special, but this Shabbos carries a special distinction. We refer to it as Shabbos Shirah. While every Shabbos provides spiritual nourishment to sustain us for the week, this Shabbos possesses a unique spiritual energy as the depository of the power of the definitive moment in our founding, the climax of Yetzias Mitzrayim, when the newly released nation sang Oz Yoshir.
Chazal teach that leading up to the original shirah, simple maids merited perceiving Divine splendor and glory in a way that surpassed that of the greatest prophets. We wonder what it was that they saw. Were the Jews at Krias Yam Suf the only people to appreciate the magnitude of miracles? Surely not. Was the sight of a mighty sea splitting and dry paths suddenly appearing the greatest super-human experience?
The Medrash (Bereishis Rabba 23, 3) sheds light on the vision apparent at the splitting of the sea. The Medrash concentrates on the word “oz,” which opens the eternal song of the shirah. Chazal say that Moshe Rabbeinu had previously sinned by uttering the word “oz” in a complaint against Hashem. “Be’oz chotoh, with “oz” he sinned, “ube’oz tikkein,” and with “oz” it was rectified.
Moshe Rabbeinu erred by asking the Ribbono Shel Olam why it was necessary to increase the suffering of Bnei Yisroel. Hashem appeared to Moshe and told him that He heard the cries of the enslaved Jewish people. He would free them from oppression and take them to the Promised Land. Hashem instructed the reluctant Moshe to appear before Paroh and ask him to permit the Jews a brief respite to worship Hashem in the desert. Unreceptive to the request, Paroh tightened the pressure on the poor slaves. Moshe registered his complaint to Hashem, saying, “Umei’oz bosi el Paroh ledaber biShmecha heira la’am hazeh vehatzeil lo hitzalta es amecha – Since I spoke in Your Name to Paroh, he has worsened the way he treats the people and You have not rescued them” (Shemos 5:23).
Moshe’s ode of repentance is apparent in this week’s song, “Oz yoshir Moshe uVnei Yisroel.” The opening word “oz” is the very term with which he sinned.
There is something that bears explanation. Moshe erred when he used the word oz to complain about the situation facing the Jews. He did not use that word in the actual shirah. What, then, does the Medrash mean when it says that Moshe sinned with “oz” and repented with “oz,” when that word is not part of the song?
We may be able to understand the depth of the connection by observing that when the Jewish suffering and toil seemed too much to bear, Hashem appeared to Moshe and told him that the oppression would come to an end. Yet, when Moshe followed Hashem’s instructions and spoke to Paroh, it appeared as if his efforts were for naught. Paroh increased the workload. It seemed to Moshe that appealing to Paroh for better treatment was a bad idea that backfired.
In time, however, it became clear that the increase in work was a means of speeding up the redemption, for it allowed the Bnei Yisroel to be redeemed 190 years earlier than originally prophesized. The harshness of servitude was what caused it to end sooner.
Even great nevi’im, who feel Hashem’s total mastery over the cosmos, don’t merit to see both parts of the story, the beginning and the end, come together the way the humble maids did as the Jewish nation was born as a free people at the yam.
It was the specific factor about which Moshe had complained that was the catalyst of the redemption. At the sea, as he witnessed his oppressors washing up dead on the shore and saw the mighty Egyptian army reduced to corpses, Moshe understood it.
On the shore of the Yam Suf, as geulim, Moshe uVnei Yisroel perceived the perfect symmetry of the Divine plan as they saw everything they had been promised come to fruition. It was then that they sang the shirah.
The root of the word shirah is shir. The Mishnah in Maseches Shabbos that lists the accessories that an animal may carry outside on Shabbos includes a shir, a round ring worn around the neck of an animal.
Rav Moshe Shapiro explains that shir is a circle. He says that at the moment they sang shirah, Moshe and the Bnei Yisroel perceived the perfect harmony of creation, how there is a beginning, middle and end to everything. They witnessed the realization of what was foretold to the avos, to Moshe and to them. When they saw that, they sang.
The Bais Halevi explains it as follows: “There is another level: he who perceives the kindness shown to him through the suffering as well, as it says, ‘I thank You, Hashem, for You have answered me and become my salvation’ (Tehillim 118:21), an expression of gratitude on the ‘inui,’ the affliction, as well as the salvation – I thank You for both, for both are beneficial and good for me. This was the attitude of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Bnei Yisroel when they sang at the Yam Suf.“
At that instant, they perceived the benefit of their long bondage.
There is another time that the word “oz“ appears in Tanach that can contribute to our understanding of this equation.
The posuk in Tehillim states, “Nachon kisacha mei‘oz,” meaning that Hashem’s throne has been fixed in place since creation. The Sefas Emes explains that mei‘oz refers to the “oz” of Oz Yoshir. There is a certain depth of comprehension of Hashem’s Hashgochah and clarity in the revelation of His dominion that was not revealed to the world until Krias Yam Suf.
The Torah recounts that when Moshe originally told the Jewish people that Hashem had spoken to him, foretelling their release, they were unable to hear his message “mikotzer ruach umei’avodah kashah” (Shemos 6:9). The Ohr Hachaim explains that their inability to accept words of consolation was due to the fact that they had not yet received the Torah. Without Torah, their spirit was compromised. Torah expands the hearts of those who study and observe it. The Jews in Mitzrayim were not yet blessed with that ability.
Perhaps the Sefas Emes can help us explain why the Jews were unable to have faith in Moshe’s announcement. The light of emunah that shined in the world at the beginning of creation had been dimmed until Krias Yam Suf. Thus, the abused slaves in Mitzrayim didn’t have the benefit of the emunah sheleimah that resides deep within each of our hearts since that moment.
At Krias Yam Suf, there was a new revelation. Everything in the world that had previously been thought to be disparate and imperceptible came together, clearly. They were no longer slaves. They were a new nation of geulim, having been crafted goy mikerev goy, one nation plucked from among another. The Maharal says that as they formed into a nation, they developed as people. Their minds became clearer and their hearts purer. They became capable of accepting the words of Hashem and His servant, Moshe.
It was at Krias Yam Suf that they understood that the bitterness, suffering and oppressive toil were means of hastening their freedom. Thus, the Torah records their song as “Oz yoshir.” They sang a song of oz, appreciating the profound mistake in the original complaining “oz.” They rectified their error by singing “oz,” comprehending the way of Hashem.
The shirah is written in the Sefer Torah as “oriach al gabei leveinah, like bricks on a wall.” The amount of white space on the scroll equals that of the written words. There are as many spaces as there are words, because in shirah, everything comes together. The words and the silence, the black and the white, darkness and light, all combine to form shirah.
We all have trials and tribulations, aspects of our lives that we don’t understand. There are happenings that impact Am Yisroel and Eretz Yisroel that we can’t comprehend. We experience times that we think are good and others that seem to be not so good. We wonder why we suffer and why others suffer. We wonder why there are so many tragedies in the world, including senseless murder, disease, abuse, and sadness. But we have to remember never to lose our faith and that one day it will all become clear to us. There will be a day, soon, when we will understand all that has transpired. On that day, all will sing shirah, but we, men and women of faith, can sing shirah every day.
Just as the Torah records concerning the Jews at Krias Yam Suf, “Vayaaminu baHashem,” we, bnei uvenos Torah, possess the harchovas hadaas granted to us with Yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah to realize that we should maintain our faith and hold on tight through the cycles that lead to one goal.
The sefer Orchos Chasidecha recounts a story of emunah and bitachon, which I have not been able to verify. On May 7, 1945, Nazi Germany signed its unconditional surrender to the Allies. Following fierce American bombing, Japan gave up at the end of the summer. Thousands of Jews had found refuge in the Japanese-controlled Chinese city of Shanghai. However, as American bombers shelled Shanghai in a final effort to defeat Japan, the refugees feared for their lives.
As the bombing campaign intensified, some students of the Mir Yeshiva, who fled Poland and Lithuania to the safety of Shanghai, suggested to move further inland to the city of Nanjing. The renowned mashgiach of the yeshiva, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein, wouldn’t hear of it.
He argued that they should remain in Shanghai, saying that moving would disrupt the sidrei hayeshiva. When pressed, he explained that all the journeys of the Jews as they traversed the desert, going from Mitzrayim to Eretz Yisroel, were “al pi Hashem.” They followed the Anan Hashem wherever it took them. They stayed there as long as the Anan did and moved only when it dictated they should.
“Hashem helped us until now,” said Rav Levenstein, “and we must have bitachon that He will guide us at this stage of the war as well. Until He sends a sign that we must move, we are staying here.”
Because of Rav Levenstein’s well-earned reputation and fierce bitachon, the entire yeshiva followed his direction and stayed in Shanghai, despite the apparent dangers.
Rav Levenstein later testified that the reason he didn’t move was because his rabbeim had appeared to him in a dream and told him that a move would be very dangerous. In fact, hundreds of Nanjing citizens were subsequently killed.
In his hesped on Rav Levenstein, Rav Elozor Menachem Man Shach quoted a posuk from this week’s parsha. The Torah recounts that Moshe Rabbeinu’s hands remained raised in prayer as the Jewish people battled Amaleik: “Vayehi yodov emunah ad bo hashomesh.“ The literal translation of the verse is that Moshe’s hands had faith until the sun set.
“Many people have emunah in their hearts,” Rav Shach cried out. “Der mashgiach hut gehat emunah in zeine hent – he had faith in his hands.“
Rav Levenstein, the world-renowned tzaddik, possessed a tangible emunah and was able to practically feel the Divine kindness in every episode and event. To him, it was not merely an intellectual exercise. It was real.
His students relate that he derived much of his emunah from his daily recitation of the shirah, the words of Oz Yoshir, which were seared into his soul and armed him with the emunah he carried in his holy hands.
Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz would recall the time Rav Yisroel Salanter visited the home of a wealthy man, who unfortunately had doubts in emunah and asked Rav Yisroel to prove Hashem’s existence.
The rich man’s daughter could be seen playing piano in the next room. Rav Yisroel asked if she could play a particular piece of music for him.
The girl refused.
Her father asked her why she didn’t want to play for the distinguished guest.
“For every individual who asks me to play I must make a concert?” she replied.
Rav Yisroel smiled and asked, “But how do I know that you are really capable of playing? Your father says that you are an expert pianist, but if you don’t display your gift and play that piece, how do I know that you are really capable?”
“Simple,” the girl answered. “I graduated from a prestigious musical conservatory and the instructors there signed my award certificate attesting to my abilities. I will show it to you and that will prove my musical capabilities.”
Satisfied, Rav Yisroel looked at his host. “The Creator showed Himself to our ancestors and we have the certificate, handed down from father to son, to prove it. Now we have to believe.”
This week’s parsha defines that certificate. We play the music and sing the song that proclaims that we know we will continue singing until we merit to chant the song that will celebrate the centuries of hardship and suffering.
Ufduyei Hashem yeshuvun uvau leTzion berinah vesimchas olam al rosham.
This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.