Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
Certainly, the splitting of the Red Sea is a magnificent climax to the whole process of the redemption from Egypt. It is no wonder then, that the Jewish People were inspired to burst out in song to God for saving them in such a spectacular way. They were truly overcome with appreciation, awe, and love for the Creator who displayed such wondrous acts of care for them.
As such, when we read in this unique song phrases such as "I will sing to God because He has acted mightily (Ex. 15:1)" and "In the abundance of Your might You have smashed down those that rise against You (Ex. 15:7)," we readily understand the pertinence thereof.
"This is my Lord and I will glorify Him (Ex. 15:2)" is also quite relevant to the overall theme as well. The Jewish People are so overwhelmed with esteem for Hashem's might, and gratitude for the ultimate kindness that He has done for them, that they are moved to declare in exultation their complete devotion and dedication to glorify His name. Indeed, the explanation of the Sages - that this is a reference to beautifying the mitzvos (1) - fits right into this idea.
However, we find another explanation of the Sages(2) that perhaps requires a deeper analysis in respect to the context in which it appears. The Hebrew word for "I will glorify Him" is v'an'vey'hu. This word sounds like ani v'hu, which means "I and Him" - in other words, "I want to be like Him." The Jewish People, amidst their song of praise to Hashem, are proclaiming their intense desire to emulate their Creator. Indeed, one of the mitzvos of the Torah is to walk in the ways of Hashem. Just as Hashem is merciful, so too must we be merciful, just as Hashem is kind, so too must we be kind, etc. Here, though, this idea is not being stated as a mitzvah, rather it is the spontaneous expression of the Jewish People's inner drive to follow in the ways of the Hashem and thus become as much like Him as is possible.
How, then, does this fit into the overall theme of the Song of the Sea?
Is there an emotional reflex that anytime I feel grateful to someone for a kindness which they did for me, I automatically feel that I want to be like them? True, when one admires the qualities of another, one can become inspired to attempt emulation; but in the context of the Song of the Sea it would seem that the chief attribute of Hashem that is being praised is His attribute of power. Do the Jewish People aspire to be as powerful as Hashem? Obviously not.
The Sages' particular choice of words here is "just as He is merciful, so too must you be merciful" etc. One could certainly argue that the Jewish People were so inspired by Hashem's attribute of kindness and mercy that they wanted to become like that. Nevertheless, wouldn't it seem that when one is the recipient of a great kindness, the primary emotional response is one of gratitude as opposed to deep admiration? Again, it is possible that in such a situation one could also react with deep awe and admiration, but it seems that in general this is not necessarily the case; and that we therefore need to search for a deeper explanation.
The topic at hand is the magnificent Song of the Splitting of the Sea. What is song in its essence? Have you ever seen someone happily humming a nice tune to himself as he goes about his day? He's not even thinking about it and may not even notice it, but he is singing. What is the cause of such song?
"Happily humming." This is the answer.
Song is a natural, spontaneous expression of a feeling of inner happiness, or inner completion. When one feels a sense of richness of life born of continually experiencing deep purpose and meaning in what one is doing, when one feels a sense of completion, one experiences a true joy that can bring one to song.
The quintessential beauty of song is symphony. When all the different singers are on key with one another, when the various harmonies blend beautifully into the melody, when all the instruments merge together, when everything is in proper structure and balance - each aspect in its assigned place and timing - a beautiful symphony is formed. Through each component serving its proper function, the song is completed and it brings joy to the soul. Better yet, it manifests and expresses the joy of the soul. The essence of song, then, is the manifestation and experiencing of ecstasy.
For more than two centuries, the Jewish People in Egypt had suffered dreadfully at the hands of their wicked oppressors. They were drowning in a seemingly endless ocean of darkness and misery. The only thing keeping them barely was their deep, inner hope in the promise that Hashem made to the Forefathers that, ultimately, He would redeem them. Probably, for most of the Jews, life during those hard centuries was one of bitterness and confusion, a not knowing what purpose there is in waking up to another day - hopelessness and despondency.
Indeed, the Sages reveal to us that if not for the strength of conviction that the Jewish women of that era possessed and displayed, the Jewish People would not have been able to last as long as they did.(3) It was so hard that they would have completely given up; they would not have been able to hold out. They would have totally lost any hope for redemption and would have lost any sense of Jewish identity. That is how bad it was; and only on account of the steadfast conviction of the Jewish women did we indeed persevere and survive.
Finally, the time for redemption comes. Moshe Rabbeinu enters the scene, and a renewed hope is breathed into the weary lungs of the enslaved Jews. As the plagues begin, with Egypt suffering terribly and the Jews being spared, the hope and courage of the Jewish People grows. They begin to feel more pride in their Jewish identity; they begin to see more purpose in their existence as a nation.
Finally, that glorious day comes when Hashem completely redeems His People from bondage and removes them from the land of Egypt, from the land of their suffering. They arrive at the Red Sea. Suddenly, they see Egypt chasing after them, and once again they are overcome with a feeling of tremendous despair. They think that it was all for nothing, and that they will meet their end right then and there at the hands of their oppressors. "And Moshe said to the People, 'Do not be afraid! Stand and see the salvation of Hashem that He will do for you today...Hashem will fight for you...(Ex. 14:13,14)."
At Moshe's instruction, "the Jewish People went into the sea and the waters were a wall for them from their right and from their left (Ex. 14:22)." As the Jews safely walked through the sea, the Egyptian oppressors were utterly destroyed - smashed and drowned. The Jewish People witnessed the complete and utter downfall of their tormentors while concomitantly experiencing their own total salvation by the merciful hand of the Almighty.
At that moment, they saw how everything fit into place.
They understood what they are all about and what the purpose of their slavery was. They saw how Hashem indeed directs His universe with supreme justice and that it is not chaos and happenstance. No, everything is accounted for, everything serves a particular purpose, and all actions are dealt with appropriately.
At that moment, the Jewish People experienced the ecstasy of catching a glimpse of the wondrous tapestry of the inner purpose and workings of creation. They experienced the ultimate joy of symphony, of feeling completion as each component fulfils an exalted purpose and merges within the greater picture to produce the beautiful masterpiece. This tremendous ecstasy brought them to a magnificent, spontaneous outburst of song. Their song was not simply a song of praise and gratitude; rather, it was the song of the beauty of creation; the beauty of existence. It was the manifestation and expression of that powerful feeling of fullness and completion in life.
They saw with a brilliant light how existence reaches its untold fulfillment and beauty through its relationship with the Creator. When one has an inner recognition of the purpose of each detail of creation, when one realizes that everything that happens contains deep meaning and significance, when one realizes that there is an exalted Director of the Universe Who infuses its components and occurrences with the deepest and most powerful meaning of infinity; at such a moment a person touches the joy of eternity, the infinite ecstasy of true existence. Because, to touch G-d, as it were, is to experience the ultimate joy of existence.
The only way to achieve this state of being as a permanent, ongoing reality of life, though, is to cultivate and develop an actual relationship with the Creator of the Universe. However, one cannot relate to a being with whom one has nothing in common. We have to be like Hashem in order to come close to Him - ani v'hu, I and Him. Just as Hashem is merciful, so too must I be merciful. To become like Hashem and to cling to Him through learning His Torah and fulfilling His mitzvos is the ultimate in attaining the true purpose of life. When we acquire the attributes of the Creator - when we become like Him - we become close to Him. And, when in the context of that closeness we worship Him through learning His Torah and carrying out His mitzvos, we touch, as it were, His infinite Oneness and experience the ecstasy of true existence.
In their spontaneous outburst of joyous song, the Jewish People touched the true, inner joy of creation. They saw the beauty of existence; and, as a brilliant flash of lightning, their deep purpose as a nation. As a result of this, they proclaimed their burning desire to acquire that ecstasy permanently - "This is my Lord and I will glorify Him," - ani v'hu, I and Him. Just as Hashem is, so must you be.
1. For example, writing a Seifer Torah in a beautiful manner (see Shabbos 133b).
3. See Sotah 11b and Rashi in Vayakheil 38:8.