Shabbos Shirah: A Song for Our Time

It is an ancient question: Why is only this Shabbos known by the name of its Torah reading? We don’t find, for instance, that the Shabbos that we lain Yisro or Va’eschanon is known as Shabbos Mattan Torah.

When Rav Yitzchok of Vorka asked this of the Chiddushei Harim, he answered that the reason is that the writing of the Torah is also changed on this Shabbos, since the shirah is written in its special poetic form.

Rav Shmuel of Shinava, a talmid of the Chiddushei Harim, explained his answer in a way that should affect us all. “The body of a Yid,” he wrote, “is like the parchment of the Sefer Torah. His neshomah is the letters and names of Hashem. If the shirah effects a change in the parchment of the Torah itself, then the body of a Jew can also change, so that it can be awakened and inspired to praise and thank Hashem Yisborach” (Remasayim Tzofim, quoted by Yagdil Torah, page 234). Indeed, the Chiddushei Harim “spoke beautifully and fulfilled his words as well.”

Rav Shmuel of Shinava testified that his rebbe danced with a holy fervor at the Kabbolas Shabbos of Shabbos Shirah, announcing that every Jew should feel the joy of the Shirah this Shabbos to the point of dancing with hakoras hatov for all Hashem’s kindness to us.

The Sadigura Rebbe, Rav Avrohom Yaakov, added that this Shabbos radiates for the first time with the basic gifts that Hashem gave to Klal Yisroel: the Shabbos itself, the splitting of the Sea, the eternal shirah, the monn which is the source of parnassah for Klal Yisroel, and the ability to triumph over our enemies mentioned at the end of the sedra.

One of the great Chassidic rebbes, who was a link in the glorious chain of neginah, was Rav Shaul Yedidya of Modzitz. He was once asked for the source of all the beautiful melodies Klal Yisroel has sung over the centuries. He answered, quoting his grandfather, the rebbe of Kuzmir, that Chazal (see Resisei Laylah 56) say that “words that emerge from the heart enter the heart.” This means that when the heart overflows its banks with love, the words enter the hearts of all who listen. The Modzitzer added that the source of this concept can be found at the beginning of the shirah. On the opening words, “AzThen Moshe sang” (15:1), Rashi comments, “Alah b’libo sheyashir – It entered his heart to sing.” The rebbe explained, “This means that when Moshe Rabbeinu’s heart was full, it overflowed into this song.” We might add that the Sefer Kuzari taught almost a thousand years ago that “this is the way a chossid worships Hashem. The words lead him to spontaneously sing and dance.”

The opening words of the shirah are also elucidated by Chazal as proving techiyas hameisim, the resurrection of the dead. “It does not say sang, but will sing. This is indicative of the rising of the dead” (Sanhedrin 91b).

The Belzer Rebbe, Rav Aharon Rokeach, recalled these soothing words at a pivotal moment in his life. He had survived the murderous plans of the Nazi barbarians amidst many miracles, arriving in Eretz Yisroel on the ninth of Shevat 5704 (1944). It was just before Shabbos Shirah as he conducted his first tish in the city of Haifa. Broken from his many difficult wanderings, with the pain of millions of Jewish souls, including his own family, upon his mind, he offered incredible chizuk. “Moshe Rabbeinu,” he began amidst both tears and gratitude, “found it difficult to sing of the rescue of Klal Yisroel, since four-fifths of the nation had perished (Rashi, Shemos 13:18). He thought: “How can I sing?” But then he uttered words that hinted that “there will come a time when all the lost neshamos will return and therefore I can sing.”

That is the timeless message of Az Yoshir. Without the knowledge that the dead will once again live, it is impossible to truly sing.

We can appreciate the profound depth of this approach to the vicissitudes of life from the poetic words of the Sefas Emes (Ohr Etzyon ed., Pesach, page 249): “The posuk (Tehillim 68:7) states, ‘He releases those bound bakosharos (in fetters).’ Chazal (Bamidbar Rabbah 3:6) interpret this to mean bechi (crying) and shirah (song), because Moshe Rabbeinu cried (as a baby on the Nile) and Klal Yisroel cried in the pain of bondage, but then they sang in joy. The Medrash is teaching us that Hashem prepared us for two modes of greatness. One comes from tears and one comes from song, but both derive from the power of the mouth.”

The Sefas Emes, like the Belzer Rebbe, is reminding us that we can achieve great spiritual heights in suffering and exultation because they both flow from the same source of strength.

One word in the third posuk of the shirah produces two separate although related halachos. The word ve’anveihu means to beautify the mitzvos and also to emulate Hashem’s traits, such as kindness and compassion (Shabbos 133b). The Shaagas Aryeh is reported to have explained that the second interpretation flows from the first. The greatest beautification a person can accomplish is the development of his own personae. In emulating Hashem, a person becomes a beautiful human being. That is the ultimate act of hiddur mitzvah a person can do. Interestingly, it costs no money and requires no materialistic trappings. As Rav Yisroel Salanter, founder of the Mussar Movement, taught us, it is harder to change one middah (human trait) than to complete the entire Talmud. We might add that this teaching belongs in the shirah, because the soul of such a person who acts in a G-dly manner sings the song for which we were created to bring glory to our Maker. This song can erupt from salvation and its attendant miracles or from our ultimate trust in Hashem, even at times of tribulation and suffering, out of an abundance of bitachon and emunah in Hashem’s wisdom and love.

The Bnei Yissoschor (Maamorei Shabbos 2:5) offers another explanation for why the halacha of hiddur mitzvah belongs in the shirah. He cites the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim 8:2) and Mechilta (1:7) that at one point, the Egyptian people only had one-horse wagons. Then the Paroh at the time of Yosef added another horse to his royal chariot (Markeves Hamishneh, Bereishis 41:43). When the Paroh at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim pursued Klal Yisroel, he added a third (“veshalishim al kulo”). For this reason, we learn that the Gemara (Bava Kamma 9b) teaches that we may add hiddur mitzvah up to a third of the cost of the mitzvah. This is our revenge upon Paroh. He added a third horse in his haste and zeal to wipe out Klal Yisroel. We, in turn, add a level of beautifying our own mitzvos by a third to indicate that our virtue outweighs Paroh’s evil.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Moadim, Sukkos, page 222) takes this idea to a new level as well. Why is the halacha of hiddur mitzvah in the shirah? He answers that one’s ability to live on a supernatural level flows directly from his performance of mitzvos beyond the usual bounds of human ability. For this reason, Avrohom Avinu lived a life that was constantly beyond the limitations of nature, because his dedication to Hashem and spreading of His Name was done with superhuman courage and effort. We, too, earned this ability by opposing the Egyptian worship of the lamb by endangering ourselves through the Korban Pesach lamb. This coupled with the blood of the bris milah indicated our willingness to spill our blood for Hashem, so He split the Yam Suf for us in the most miraculous of ways. The concept of hiddur mitzvah, too, reflects this dedication, since it represents performing mitzvos beyond the letter of the law in order to add beauty to our serving of Hashem. When we saw how Hashem overturns the laws of nature to save us from our enemies, we were imbued with the spirit of doing each mitzvah in the most elaborate and splendorous of fashions.

We begin to understand the tremendous power of Shabbos Shirah. We learned from the rebbe of Vorka that we can change ourselves, as my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, used to put it, from prose to poetry, just as the shirah changes the parchment itself. We learned from the Bnei Yissoschor that we can even derive inspiration from our enemies, such as Paroh, how to beautify our mitzvos to the point of triumphing over their evil machinations against us. We learned from the Modzitzer Rebbe that a heart full of love and gratitude to Hashem can erupt in beautiful song which uplifts all the generations. And we learned from the Belzer Rebbe that even in the throes of tragedy and loss, we can find the strength to thank Hashem for the gift of life, the gift of faith, and the gift of the very ability to start over again. The Sefas Emes showed us how to combine bechi and shirah into a song of techiyas hameisim, which transcends the sadness of loss by the vision of what can and will be bimeheirah b’yomeinu.