“Then”, Moshe and the Children of Israel shall sing

By Rabbanit Rachel Reinfeld-Wachtfogel, Rabbanit of OTS Jennie Sapirstein Junior High and High School for Girls in Ramot, Jerusalem

On the seventh day of Passover, we will read (individually this year, in our homes) a passage of the Torah describing one of the greatest and most formative events in the history of the Jewish people – the splitting of the Red Sea. How is this event, which transpired over three thousand years ago, connected to us? To address this question, we’ll revisit some of the verses and midrashim that describe the event.

Having walked on dry land within the sea and seen the water that stood like walls “to their right and left”, the people of Israel “… saw the wondrous power which Hashem had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared Hashem; and they had faith in Hashem and His servant Moses.” Numbers (14:31). Immediately thereafter, the text reads: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Hashem. I will sing to Hashem…” (ibid., 15:1).

These verses have sparked many questions. Why now, finally, did the Israelites believe in Hashem? How can we explain this new faith, after they had already proclaimed their faith earlier, when they were still in Egypt, after Moses had shown them the signs, “… and the people were convinced when they heard that Hashem had taken note of the Israelites…” (Exodus 4:31)? Also, what does the word “”az” – “then” means here, and how does this conjunction link the recognition of Hashem that we read of in the previous verse with shirat hayam, the Song at the Sea. The word “will sing” is also puzzling. Why is the future tense used, rather than az shar, “and then, it [the nation] sang”? Alternatively, the verse could have said vayashir, another biblical past tense (the inverted past)?

Faith for Generations

We’ll begin by answering how the faith expressed at the Red Sea differed from the faith the people already had when Moses came to them to tell them of the redemption that was on its way and the faith derived from their witnessing of the ten plagues and other great miracles in Egypt? The midrash (Shemot Rabbah on Parashat Beshalach, paragraph 23:2) explains that the nation had become weak in their faith, but then, “since they had come to the sea and had witnessed the greatness of the Holy One Blessed Be He and how He had exacted justice from evildoers… immediately, ‘they had faith in Hashem.’” Owing to this faith, the divine spirit rested upon them, and they chanted this song, as it is written: “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Hashem – ‘then’ is nothing but an expression of faith“.

The author of the Sefat Emet expands on the unique quality of this new faith in Pesach 5639: “This is faith for generations. The Israelites witnessed [Hashem’s] great hand and believed in the Holy One, Blessed Be He, that whenever they are beset by distress, darkness and diaspora in the future, their faith in the Holy One shall not subside… And just as the redemption from Egypt encompassed all of the redemptions, so too, in all of the actions, the outcry, the faith and the songs formed an opening and a gateway for all generations.” Just as the redemption from Egypt acts as a prototype for all future redemptions, providing hope in imminent redemptions, so, too, the faith on the sea serves as a prototype and a source of inspiration for all of the songs and faith of the Jewish people, in all generations. This helps us understand the use of the future tense in the song that was sung that day: “they shall sing“.

The King, the Holy One Blessed Be He

Now, let’s shift our focus to the meaning of the conjunction “then”, connecting the splitting of the Red Sea and new faith in G-d, and the Song of the Red Sea. Through Psalm 93, which discusses the splitting of the Red Sea, the Midrash (ibid., 1) explains precisely what had happened “then”, at that revelation at the sea:

  1. Brachia said, in the name of R. Abahu: Although You have existed for all time, You have not ascended Your throne and You weren’t recognized in Your world until your children sang a song. That is why the verse states “Your throne stands firm from of old” (Psalms 93:2).

Though Hashem has existed from the time of creation, and even before that, “once You stood at the sea, and we sang a song to you with, az, then, Your kingship and throne became established (there), and His name became recognized in His world!”  The greatness of the moment of song in the word az is the crowning of the Holy One, Blessed Be He in our world, by His nation. The Midrash expresses the idea that “there is no king without a nation”, and until the nation crowns the king, even if that king has been ruling the world from the moment of its inception, the king does not sit on His royal throne until He is crowned, since “in multitudes there is glorification of the king”. The Baal Hatanya, in Shaar Hayichud Veha’emuna, chapter 7, writes wonderful things about this: “Behold, for all know that the purpose of the creation of the world is to bring about the revelation the kingship of the Blessed One, for there is no king without a nation… for even if He were to have begotten a great many sons, kingship over them would not be relevant there, nor would it apply if only ministers had accepted [the kingship], only with multitudes there is glorification of the King“. We have an opportunity to continue crowning the Holy One, Blessed Be every day, by saying the Song of the Sea during the Shacharit prayer.

Retroactive gratitude to Hashem

Another commentary on the expression az, which links what Israel had experienced in the past with the revelation of faith and song, appears in the Sefat Emet (ibid., 5641). The author explains that the expression manifests a retrospective understanding the people had for what they went through. “This means that they believed, retroactively, in the entire diaspora, and accepted it with love, and they broke out in song over everything, even those things that hardened Pharaoh’s heart”. With these wondrous words, the Sefat Emet tells us that faith revolves not only around redemption and salvation by Hashem, but also around the understanding that even the terrible suffering we endure (in every generation) comes from Hashem, and that it isn’t without reason, even if we don’t understand the reason. Therefore, they sang a song – they sang about the everything, redemption, but also exile. The author of the Sefat Emet ends with words of encouragement: “… and thus, we should recognize this diaspora, as it is written: ‘I will show him wondrous deeds, as in the days when You sallied forth from the land of Egypt'” (Micah 7:15).

During these troubling times, when we are holed up in our homes, feeling as if we were exiled from our synagogues, detached from the family gatherings of the Pesach festival and everything else with which we are familiar, we can still cling to the words “then” Moshe and the Children of Israel shall sing.  Let us keep in mind that at the end of this process, we will express our gratitude for both the exile and the redemption (even if we can’t understand the need for this exile). We will continue crowning Hashem as our King every day, when we recall our departure from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea, on Shabbatot and on the days of Pesach, and in so doing, we’ll be proclaiming our faith in Hashem even when in exile, for the Jewish People, standing in the Red Sea, planted within us the seeds of faith for generations, and that faith endures even during times of darkness and disease.

We pray to Hashem to bolster the faith in our hearts at this time, and we wish good health and a speedy recovery to each and every person, wherever he or she may be.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Sameach


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