Sfas Emes, zechuso tagein aleinu, Beshalach, 5631
The Sfas Emes begins this ma’amar with a reference to the first paragraph of Medrash Rabba on the posuk “Ahz yashir..”. (Shemos, 15:1) (ArtScroll: “Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing …”). That Medrash, in turn, quotes the posuk in Tehillim (93:2): “nachon kis’acha mei’ahz, mei’olam ata” (ArtScroll: “Your throne is established from of old; eternal are You”.) This posuk, with its mention of “mei’ahz,” clearly echoes the “ahz” of “Ahz yashir”. The Sfas Emes takes it for granted that we are aware that the focus on the word “ahz” is an immediate tip-off. . Tip-off to what?
Tip-off to the fact that we are dealing here with phenomena that are “lema’ala min hateva” (i.e., above nature, supernatural — “super” being the Latin for “above”. How do we know that we are in the realm of lema’ala min hateva? The letters of the word “ahz” have the numerical value of 8. (How so? Alef == 1; Zayin == 7; 7+1=8.) And the number 8 is often an indicator of special kedusha (sanctity) status. Thus, bris milah takes place on the eighth day after birth. Likewise, the festival of Shemini Atzeres — the eighth day of Yom Tov — has so much intrinsic kedusha that we have no need for “visual aids” like a sukka or arba minim.
But much more is going on here than the word “ahz” and its remez (hint) to the supernatural. The Sfas Emes is reading the word kis’acha” in the posuk just cited (Tehillim, 93:2) as related to the word “michseh” — i.e., a cover. Thus, he understands the posuk as telling us that HaShem’s presence in the world is covered; i.e., not apparent to our eyes. In the same vein, that posuk continues with the phrase “mei’olam ahta”. Those words are clearly alluding to the word “he’eleim” — “hidden”. And they are informing us that HaShem’s Presence is usually not evident to the unaided eye.
This is the context within which the splitting of Yam Suf took place. The Sfas Emes tells us that with that extraordinary event, HaShem’s Presence in the world was revealed to all observers. Thus, when B’nei Yisroel saw HaShem’s intervention in human affairs, they could say shira. For the moment, at least, the hester was gone!
The Sfas Emes notes that this feature of our people’s experience — the fact that we could now say shira — provides an answer to a puzzling question. Why does the Torah use the phrase “Ahz yashir” to tell us what happened? If the Torah wanted to say that Moshe and B’nei Yisroel sang, the text should say: “Ahz shar,” not “Ahz yashir!”
(A note on grammar. “Shar” is the past tense of binyan kal, the basic construction for verbs. Hence, as just noted, “Moshe sang” would be “Ahz shar Moshe”. The construction that the Torah uses — “yashir” — is (in the text’s pshat/simple meaning) the future tense of binyan kal. That is, “Ahz yashir Moshe ” translates as “Moshe will sing”. In the text’s simple pshat, the Torah uses the future tense here as a form of poetic embellishment, but with the meaning of “sang”. In fact, I checked three different English-language translations of the Chumash on this phrase. All three translate ” yashir” in this clause as “sang”.)
The Sfas Emes gives a radically new answer to the question of why the Torah says “yashir” rather than “shar”. As noted, the construction “yashir” is the future tense of binyan kal. But “yashir” can also be the future tense of the “causative” construction — binyan hif’il. For the verb “shir” (to sing), the hif’il construction — i.e., to cause to sing — is also “yashir!” This fact of grammar enables the Sfas Emes to read the words “Ahz yashir” as: “cause to sing”.
Whom did Moshe and B’nei Yisroel cause to sing? The Sfas Emes answers: All of Creation! The Sfas Emes refers us here to the “Perek Shira,” a text found at the beginning of the Otzar Tefilos Siddur, as well as in some Nusach Sefard siddurim. Perek Shira presents the divrei shevach vehodaya (i.e., the words of praise and gratitude) which all of HaShem’s Creation sing every day.
Thus, we find in PerekShira the p’sukim that some 100 creatures – from the eagle to the mouse and to the ant — as well as phenomena such as lightning, clouds, and the dew sing. In other words, the Sfas Emes is telling us that when Moshe and B’nei Yisroel sang, they caused the entire Cosmos to sing with shevach vehodaya to HaShem.
By singing shira, Moshe and B’nei Yisroel expressed their recognition that all existence comes from HaShem. Further, by their action, Moshe and B’nei Yisroel evoked a similar reaction throughout Creation. The whole cosmos recognized that it, too, exists only from the life that HaShem gives it every day. Resonating with Moshe and B’nei Yisroel, the whole world sang Shira of — and to — HaShem!
A fair question at this point: if the entire Cosmos is singing shira, why don’t we hear it ? Two answers come to mind. One possibility is that indeed, all Creation is singing, but we don’t hear this shira. Why not? For the same reason that we do not hear the bas kol that emanates each day from Har Chorev (Pirkei Avos,6,2) and says: “Oi lahem laberiyos mei’elbona shel Torah”. (“Woe is humankind because of the insulting way with which they treat the Torah”.) That is, in fact, the whole world is singing to HaShem. But unfortunately, we a re not tuned in to the Cosmic channel.
Another answer works with the hif’il (causative) dimension of “yashir”. Thus, the Cosmos sang because B’nei Yisroel sang. The Cosmos is not singing now because we are not singing. A person may object at this point, and point out that we say ‘pesukei de’zimra (‘verses of song’) in our daily Shacharis davening. In fact, therein lies the problem — that we say pesukei de’zimra rather than sing it!
Why are we not singing? Because we rarely penetrate the Hester, and therefore are not really aware of HaShem’s Omnipresence. In line with this perspective, we can appreciate the Sfas Emes’s frequent references to Hester. That is, we can view the Sfas Emes’ constant mention of hester as designed to enable us to see through the hester and thus enable us to sing. You may not have thought of the Sfas Emes as a music master, but that he is.
The Sfas Emes left us five paragraphs of notes on parshas Beshalach for the year 5631. To get an idea of the incredible wealth of his thought, be aware that I have attempted to present here only one of his five paragraphs of the year 5631.. That is, I have left unsaid four times as much as I have tried to present…
The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph — the first of the five — with some thoughts about Shabbos. He tells us that we can bring the light of Shabbos into the weekdays. Indeed, extending the kedusha of Shabbos to the days of the week is the essence (“ikar”) of “shemiras Shabbos” (Sabbath observance)!
In the same vein, the Sfas Emes cites a Medrash Rabba (25:12) on this parsha. The Medrash says: “If B’nei Yisoel would observe the Shabbos properly afilu yom echod (even one day), Moshiach would come. Why do I say “in the same vein?” Because the Sfas Emes reads this Medrash in an utterly non-conventional way, but in a way which is consistent with what he has just said.
Thus, the conventional way of understanding this Medrash is: If we would observe one Shabbos — on Shabbos — properly,..Moshach would come.. By contrast, the Sfas Emes reads the text as telling us thatthe “afilu yom echod” — even one day – applies to a weekday. For the Sfas Emes views true Shabbos observance as extending the light — and sanctity — of Shabbos to the weekdays!
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.