The Song of Faith
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
Converting despair into hope.
The Shabbos that Parashas Beshalach is read is known as “Shabbos Shirah – the “Sabbath of Song” – because it is in this parashah that Moses leads the Jewish men, and Miriam the prophetess, leads the Jewish women in singing the Song of Praise and Exultation to the Almighty God following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. The special song that Moses composed is “Az Yashir – Then Moses will sing.” The use of the future tense teaches us that Moses not only sang at the Sea of Reeds, but he will lead us in song once again when we behold our final redemption: the coming of Messiah. In the interim, we, the Jewish people, recite the song of Moses every morning in our prayers as we express gratitude to God.
How does one sing unto God? Is it possible for mere humans to praise Him?
Moses opened his song with the awesome words, “Ashirah la’Hashem … I shall sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant ….”1
But how high is God? Can we compare Him to anything that we human beings have experienced? Moses, the greatest man ever to walk on planet Earth, was keenly aware of this human inadequacy, so he contented himself with the phrase, “ga’oh ga’ah,” which is literally translated “high, high” (exalted above), followed by a blank space in the text. In fact, every stanza of Moses’ song is followed by a blank space, so that we might realize that no mortal can even hope to comprehend the infinite, the Divine.
In our culture of hedonism and instant gratification, it is vital to absorb this message, for ours is a generation that may lose faith at the slightest disappointment. “How could God have allowed this to happen to me?” we protest indignantly. So, when events do not turn out as anticipated, let us remember the message of Moses: leave a blank space and remain silent, anchored to our faith.
Converting Despair Into Hope
Miriam the prophetess not only led the women in song, but she did so with tambourines and drums. From where did she obtain those instruments? The desert was hardly a place to purchase them. A profound lesson is to be found in those instruments. While enveloped in brutal bondage in the “Auschwitz” of Egypt, Miriam the prophetess prepared drums and tambourines, in the faith that one day redemption would come and give the nation cause to sing and celebrate. It is this pure faith that Jewish women instilled in our people, it is this faith that enabled us to survive the centuries, and it is this faith that we must summon whenever we find ourselves in predicaments that appear to be hopeless.
When counseling people embroiled in trying and untenable situations, our esteemed mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, often advises them to take their cue from Miriam: The name Miriam means “bitter” (as in maror of the Seder table); but through her faith, Miriam converted bitterness into hope and renewed life. So, instead of giving in to despair, get a tambourine and trust God. Our mother, a survivor of the infamous Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, is living testimony to that trust.
A Song That Springs from the Heart
Shirah is more than a song: It is an expression of jubilation and exultation that springs from the inner recesses of the soul.
At the Splitting of the Reed Sea, the Jewish people, in its entirety, witnessed events of a magnitude that even the illustrious prophets did not behold. The heavens opened as the Children of Israel beheld angels, the Patriarchs, and the Matriarchs; they saw the very Hand of God. A simple handmaiden was able to point and cry out in joy, “This is my God ….”
But there is yet another dimension to this song of Moses that makes it so special, and this uniqueness is to be found in the Hebrew word, “az” with which Moses commenced the song. It was with this very same word, “az,” that Moses previously questioned God and complained, “Mei’az … – From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your Name, he [Pharaoh] did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people.”2 And now, with this very same word, “Az,” Moses proclaims God’s praise.
Sometimes we sing songs of praise to thank God for having saved us from danger and suffering, and we also sing to acknowledge the miracles He performed on our behalf. But that gratitude takes on a totally different dimension when we become aware that even the danger and suffering that we experienced were for our own benefit, and realize that through that affliction, we came to realize our potential and achieved greatness. Our bondage in Egypt enabled us to come to Sinai and accept God’s Covenant, for only a nation that endured suffering could appreciate the true meaning of Hashem’s chesed. Only such a nation could be worthy of accepting God’s covenant and all the responsibilities entailed therein – to become a “light unto the nations,” witnesses to God’s Presence.
Now we can better understand why, when the Torah speaks about Moses singing the song at the Splitting of the Sea, the word used is Yashir – will sing, for when the Messiah comes, Moses will once again lead us in song with the word “Az” and we will understand the meaning of our long exile and our pain.
In the interim, we must always keep that vision in mind. We must always be aware that even when problems overwhelm us, even when we find ourselves enveloped in darkness, God’s Presence is always there and our suffering is not random or for naught. As Isaiah states, “I thank You, Hashem, for You were angry with me and now … You have comforted me.”3
It is written that when our Forefathers departed from Egypt, God took them via a circuitous route rather than on the way that would lead them directly to the Land of Israel. At first glance, this is difficult to understand. Why would God have us traverse an inhospitable desert where there was no provision for food or water when we could have passed through the land of the Philistines and be assured of sustenance? There is an important teaching to be learned here. The Almighty was concerned that we would not be able to withstand the temptations and the pressures of Philistine society; contact with them might prompt us to return to Egypt, not only in a physical sense, but in our outlook as well. It is not only from the land of Egypt that we had to depart. More significantly, we had to remove the immorality and corruption of Egypt from ourselves. We had to experience the desert so that we might be re-created, re-shaped, and thus become the Priestly Kingdom, the holy nation that God willed us to be.
We must derive a lesson for life from this. That which appears to be short and comfortable sometimes turns out to be arduous and hazardous. Physical risks can be overcome, but once we lose our values and our morals, we lose the very essence of our lives. Accordingly, we must be vigilant and guard our souls; we must carefully choose the neighborhood in which we live; the environment in which we work, and the place where we vacation. We are never to underestimate the deleterious effects of living in a corrupt environment. Sometimes, it is more prudent to take a longer, circuitous path and, if necessary, change direction, in order to avoid a situation that would prove destructive to our spiritual well-being.
- Ibid. 15:1.
- Ibid. 5:23.
- Isaiah 12:1.