Thus Hashem saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-shore. (Sefer Shemot 14:30)
1. The destruction of the Egyptians at the Reed Sea and the song of Bnai Yisrael Parshat Beshalach continues the Torah’s discussion of Bnai Yisrael’s exodus from Egypt. The Torah relates that Paroh realized that Bnai Yisrael did not intend to return to Egypt. He regretted granting Bnai Yisrael permission to leave Egypt. He gathered his armies and set off in pursuit of his former slaves. Paroh overtook Bnai Yisrael as the nation was camped on the shores of the Reed Sea.
The Torah describes the reaction of Bnai Yisrael to the appearance of Paroh and his legions. They were trapped between the impassable sea and the Egyptian camp which was prepared to pounce upon them and destroy them. They initially responded to their perilous plight by praying to Hashem. Then, they began to criticize Moshe. They complained that they should have remained Paroh’s servants in Egypt rather than die in the wilderness. Moshe responded that the people would soon witness their salvation and the utter destruction of their enemies. Hashem will fight for them.
Hashem then split the Reed Sea and Bnai Yisrael crossed upon the dry seabed. Paroh led his armies in pursuit. The sea closed upon them. The walls of the parted water came down upon them, crushing and drowning them within the depths of the sea. Bnai Yisrael observed the complete destruction of their enemies and, led by Moshe, they sang His praises.
Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song unto Hashem, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto Hashem, for He is highly exalted. The horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea. (Sefer Shemot 15:1)
2. Song is appropriate when the salvation is complete The above passage introduces the Shirat HaYam – the Song of the Sea. This is the praise that was composed by Moshe and recited by Bnai Yisrael in response to the destruction of their enemies. The passage begins by explaining that “then Moshe and Bnai Yisrael sang this song” of praise. The passage places emphasis on the moment selected for the recitation of the Shirat HaYam. It was recited when the nation observed the complete destruction of its enemies.
Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin – Netziv – explains that only at this moment was it appropriate for this praise to be recited. Only when their salvation was complete could this praise be sung to Hashem. Netziv’s intention in this comment can be better understood in the context of earlier comments. Netziv notes that on two prior occasions Bnai Yisrael gave thanks to Hashem for their salvation. The first time was when Moshe initially came to them and told them that Hashem would redeem them from Egypt. The Torah states that the nation believed Moshe and responded by bowing to Hashem. Netziv explains that this act of bowing or prostration was an expression of thanks. Later, Moshe told Bnai Yisrael that the Egyptians would be smitten with the plague of the firstborn. Bnai Yisrael would be spared from the devastation of the plague through their participation in the Pesach offering. The nation responded by bowing to Hashem. Again, Netziv notes that the bowing or prostrating of the nation was an act of acknowledgment and a giving of thanks to Hashem.
In other words, the nation twice before expressed its confidence in Moshe’s message that Hashem would redeem them from Egypt. On both occasions they responded with prostration and thanks to Hashem. However, on neither of these occasions did Moshe lead the people in song.
Apparently, Netziv is explaining why a song of praise was only recited after the destruction of Bnai Yisrael’s enemies at the Reed Sea. He explains that such praise is only appropriate when the salvation is complete and not before that point. Although at these previous moments the nation responded to Moshe’s message with appreciation and gratitude, these could only be expressed though bowing and could not find expression in a song of praise. Netziv does not provide a reason for this rule. Why can a song of praise – like the Shirat HaYam – only be recited when the salvation is complete?
Hashem is my strength and song, and He has become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him. (Sefer Shemot 15:2)
3. Awareness of Hashem The above passage is from the Shirat HaYam. The people declare, “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him.” The Sages are troubled by the use of the term “this”. The term “this” is used to make reference to a specific object or person. In the passage it seems to be superfluous and misleading. The passage could have stated: Hashem is my G-d and I will glorify Him. What is added by the term “this”? Furthermore, the term indicates that there was some image or material presence to which the people referred. This is not possible! One of the Torah’s fundamental principles is that Hashem is not material.
Rashi responds that Hashem revealed Himslef to the people at the Reed Sea and the people pointed to Him with their fingers and declared, “This is our G-d”. He adds that even a former maidservant at the Reed Sea achieved a vision and experienced an encounter that was unsurpassed by the great prophets.
Rashi’s comments are not only difficult to understand but also seem to contribute little to resolving the problems in the passage. He seems to suggest that the term “this” is used because there was an actual presence or image to which the people referred. This assertion only confirms the difficulties presented by the passage. How can Hashem be described as a material entity or presence to which the people referred?
Thus Hashem saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians. And Israel saw the Egyptians dead upon the sea-shore. And Israel saw the great work which Hashem did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared Hashem; and they believed in Hashem, and in His servant Moshe. (Sefer Shemot 14:30-31)
4. Complete and compromised conviction Rashi’s comments can be better understood viewed in the context provided by the above passages. These passages are problematic. They explain that after Bnai Yisrael observed the destruction of their enemies at the Reed Sea they believed in Hashem and Moshe. These passages imply that prior to this point their conviction in Hashem and in Moshe was less than certain. Why were their convictions not complete until this point and how did their experience at the Reed Sea complete their convictions?
And when Paroh drew nigh, the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and, behold, the Egyptians were marching after them. And they were sore afraid. And the children of Israel cried out unto Hashem. And they said unto Moshe: Because there were no graves in Egypt, have you taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we spoke unto you in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it was better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness. And Moshe said unto the people: Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of Hashem, which He will work for you today; for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall never again see them. (Sefer Shemot 14:10-13) 5. Psychological perception and conflicting reality In order to answer this question, it is important to consider a comment made by Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra. Ibn Ezra poses a simple question on the above passages. The passages describe the response of Bnai Yisrael to the approach of Paroh and his armies. The passages communicate an image of panic and despair. Ibn Ezra notes that Bnai Yisrael included 600,000 able-bodied men. Their approaching adversaries had suffered through ten debilitating plagues. Certainly, both the health and numbers of Paroh’s legions were severely depleted by these plagues. Why did Bnai Yisrael not face their adversaries and battle them?
Ibn Ezra responds that Bnai Yisrael were psychologically incapable of considering this option. They still viewed themselves as slaves and the Egyptians as their masters. They had witnessed the humiliation of the Egyptians through the plagues. Yet, as the Egyptians appeared on the horizon, Bnai Yisrael did not realize that their planned attack was the desperate final gasp of a dying kingdom. They saw them as the unvanquished and all-powerful masters to whom they were subservient. They could not imagine opposing or rising up against this invincible adversary.
Now, the passages introducing the Shirat HaYam are easily understood. Even before arriving at the Reed Sea, Bnai Yisrael had witnessed the plagues and seen the wonders performed by Hashem through Moshe. They intellectually understood that these wonders revealed the omnipotence of Hashem. They comprehended that Hashem had sent Moshe to rescue them from Egypt. However, their hearts and minds were not united. In their hearts, their awe of Hashem’s omnipotence competed with their awe of their Egyptian masters. Their sense of freedom and deliverance from suffering could not be complete as long as they remained intimidated because of their subservience to Paroh and Egypt. Then, Bnai Yisrael witnessed the total destruction of Paroh at the Reed Sea. With ease and rapidity Hashem disposed of the invincible Paroh. Now, the people accepted Hashem in their minds and hearts. They could fully believe in Hashem and His servant Moshe.
Rashi’s comments make the same point. Hashem revealed Himself to Bnai Yisrael at the Reed Sea. His existence, providence, and omnipotence emerged fully. With the total destruction of Paroh and his legions, the hearts and minds of the people became united in belief in Hashem. He became real; ambivalence was replaced by absolute certainty, and intellectual understanding was united with heartfelt wonder. Rashi is not suggesting that the people saw Hashem in the material sense. He is explaining that He became real and the people became certain in their conviction. The people expressed their new clarity of conviction by using the phrase “this is my G-d”. They were giving expression to the overwhelming awareness of Hashem that they experienced at the Reed Sea.
6. A song of praise is an expression of uncompromised convicton A careful reading of the first passage of the Shirat HaYam reveals why it could only be recited at this time. The passage explains that the nation is singing Hashem’s praises because of its awareness of His exalted greatness. He has thrown rider and chariot into the sea. Only after the victory at the Reed Sea did the people feel truly delivered from their oppressors. Only when they saw Paroh’s complete destruction did they feel truly free. Now, their salvation was complete. Their hearts rejoiced in their deliverance. Before, when they had expressed their thanks to Hashem for their deliverance their sense of gratitude was compromised by their unresolved fear of their Egyptian masters. They could not recite Hashem’s full praises because heart and mind were not united in their acceptance of Hashem as the only true ruler in their lives. Heart and mind were in conflict; ambiguity prevailed. At the Reed Sea, Hashem was revealed as the only G-d and as an absolute omnipotent ruler. Now, they were prepared and fit to sing Shirat HaYam.
Who is like unto You, Hashem, among the mighty? Who is like unto You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? (Sefer Shemot 15:11)
7. Seeking unity of heart and mind We are obligated to serve Hashem with our entire being. We must draw close to Him through the effort of our intellect. However, intellect unaccompanied by heartfelt devotion does not produce true commitment and acceptance of Hashem. We must work to achieve unity of heart and mind. The work of the mind is not complete until the devotion of the heart is secured.