In the aftermath of the Parting of the Sea, the Jews burst forth in Shira (song). As we have explained in past issues, Shira is a unique form of song, an exclusive type of praise. As Rashi in Bereishis 32:27 referenced from the Talmud in tractate Chulin and the Mechilta regarding the angel of Eisav, “Let me leave because it is my turn to say Shira.” Angels sing Shira while humans merely sing. On the shores of the Yam Suf (Red Sea), led by Moshe and Miriam, the Jewish nation sang Shira!
Shira is a form of song and praise that emanates from the being of a person or entity that is 100% subjugated to Hashem (G-d). It presumes an integration of every element in concert with the will of G-d. It demands a singularity of understanding that existence and purpose are one and the same. To exist means to do as G-d intended. It is a realization that suspends the option of freewill so that for all intents and purposes, a human is catapulted to the level of angel. When and if this should happen the being does not choose to say Shira; instead, Shira erupts spontaneously in response to simply existing.
It is not intended that humans sing Shira. The greatness and uniqueness of humanity is the gift and challenge of freewill. Through freewill, we are the recipients of Torah and through freewill, we have the ability to ascend higher than the angels. As such, Shira is almost impossible for a human to attain, and once attained it is impossible to sustain.
Everyone wonders how the Jews were able to sin after witnessing the spectacles of Exodus, Kriyas Yam Suf (Parting of the Sea), and Matan Torah (Revelation).
We attempt to understand how someone like Bilam, a man gifted and therefore potentially worthy of prophecy akin to that of Moshe, could choose to do evil, could elect to go against G-d’s wishes.
The last Parshios explained that the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” was the means for G-d’s greater revelation. That means that if not for G-d interfering with Pharaoh’s freewill, the Jews would have been set free after the sixth plague of Shechin – boils. Nevertheless, it took six plagues and untold physical and economic devastation for Pharaoh to accept the inevitability of G-d’s intention to free the Jews.
Freewill is who and what we are. The only way that can change is if we die or if G-d chooses for His own exclusive purposes to interfere with it; otherwise, to be human means to struggle all the time with the demands of freewill. Regardless of who we are and who we become, freewill is our most defining human characteristic. Do we do as we wish or do we subject ourselves to G-d’s demands? The Jews in the aftermath of all the miracles of Exodus and beyond still had freewill. Bilam in the aftermath of prophecy still had freewill. Pharaoh up until the sixth plague still had freewill. Therefore, anything could still happen including going against G-d’s wishes and intentions. Obviously, each case is different. Each person is the product of his or her own history and challenges and what motivates one person to rebel against the obvious truth of G-d is not what motivates another to do the same; however, they all have in common that without freewill they could not have chosen to rebel.
Angels can sing Shira whenever it is their designated time to do so because they are the pure and absolute reflections of G-d’s will. They do not have freewill in the manner that provides for the possibility of not doing as G-d demands. Therefore, they exist on the level of Shira at all times. The only restriction to angels singing Shira is G-d’s will, as to when each angel is to sing the Shira of its being. Humans on the other hand are able to experience G-d in a manner that momentarily overwhelms the challenge of freewill with the irrefutable evidence of G-d’s absolute existence. (Eg. The Bnai Yisroel (Sons of Israel) at the time of Eliyahu at Mt. Carmel and what we aspire to attain at the end of Yom Kippur.) At such times, Shira in some form or another, is inevitable. However, a moment later the evidence of G-d’s absoluteness recedes into the realm of memory and freewill reasserts itself. Sin is once again a possibility and Shira is not.
Starting with the first day of Chol Hamoed Pesach, (intermediary days of Passover), we no longer say the full Hallel (a selection of Psalms called “Praise”); instead, we say ½ Hallel. The reason for doing so is the famous Medresh that describes G-d’s reaction to the drowning of the Egyptians. “My creations are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing Shira?” In truth we should answer “Yes! We do wish to sing Shira! The drowning of the Egyptians in the sea once again reaffirms Your greatness of compassion and justice as elemental to the existence of the universe. Even the destruction of Your greatest creation (human) is cause for singing Shira when it so clearly fits into the absolutes of our faith and practice!” However, to sing Shira under such conditions presumes that we are on the level of angels. It presumes that our entire beings are subjugated to G-d’s will and integrated with the essence of His Oneness. It assumes that we live within a seamless tapestry of revelation and existence. Unfortunately or fortunately that is not the assumed human condition. Our lot is to always struggle toward absolute subjugation and integration. What was realized a moment ago as truth and certainty is the challenge of here and now; therefore, we cannot say the full Hallel. We must accept the limitations of our humanness and feel the pain of loss and the destruction of potential. We cannot fully sing Shira.
Shira brings to mind the imagery of a symphony. Different instruments, notes, and talents integrated into a seamless orchestrated opus. If any one instrument or note is off, the composition’s perfection is compromised. The untrained public ear may not notice the flaw; however, the trained critic and certainly the conductor will note the musical imperfection. Correcting the mistake involves one of two possibilities. 1. Give the musician another chance to do it correctly. 2. Remove the less than perfect musician and hire another to do the job. We would like to hope for the first; however, the conductor may know that the first is not an option, and for the sake of the symphony, go with option #2.
At the end of this week’s Parsha, Amalek attacked Am Yisroel. Led by Yehoshua (Joshua – a paradigm of singular subjugation and integration), the Bnai Yisroel were victorious. G-d said to Moshe that Amalek will one day be eradicated because, (17:16) “…For the hand is on the throne of G-d…” Rashi explains from the Tanchumah that G-d swore that He would destroy Amalek because His Name and throne are not complete so long as Amalek exists. (That is why the word for ” throne – Kais” is written without an Aleph.)
Amalek proved to be the one musician and instrument unwilling to follow the Conductor. Instead of being subject to G-d and seeking seamless integration with His wishes and intentions, Amalek decided to rebel. The symphony was flawed and the opus compromised. We are told that in the aftermath of the Exodus, the entire world stood in united awe of G-d. No one doubted that the Jews were G-d’s Chosen, and no one dared to challenge His sovereignty – except Amalek. As such, G-d had to choose one of two options. 1. Give Amalek a chance to do Teshuvah and become a willing participant in the divine composition of existence; or 2. Remove Amalek from humanity because G-d knows that Teshuvah is not a possibility. G-d chose the second because He knew that Amalek would not do Teshuvah. G-d knows that Amalek will never willingly choose to be integrated in single devotion and commitment to His wishes with the rest of humanity. (Another way of describing the times of Mashiach and Redemption.) G-d knows that so long as Amalek exists, humanity as a whole will not be able to sing Shira.
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.