Parashat Beshalach includes Az Yashir, The Song of the Sea, and it affords us a chance to look into Torah and song.
At the end of the Torah we read the poetic song of He’ezinu, which speaks about how God will never destroy the Jewish People, how despite difficult times we will survive and redemption will arrive. It is in that context that the command is given to write down “this song,” which means that the whole Torah must be written, because of the song that it contains. It also means that the Torah is one long song. In Jewish tradition a shir (song) captures a moment of clarity and divinity relating to the past, present and future.
The whole Torah is a prose poem, but the specific song poems that appear in the Torah are concentrated expressions of truth, saying things with broken lines. Rabbi Menachem Froman, himself a poet, said that poetry is itself broken lines: “You break the first conventionally accepted structure,” he explained.
There is an element of song that applies to every Shabbat. Shabbat brings a stronger connection to God than other days of the week. The week culminates in this day of connection. On Friday night we sing the “Song of Shabbos,” which enumerates what Shabbos is about: how truth, gracefulness, righteousness and happiness come from connection to God. In the prayers on the day of Shabbat, we sing a celebratory prayer unique to Shabbat called Nishmat, which declares that all living beings ought to sing gratefully and gracefully to God. Some say that Nishmat (The Soul Of All That Lives) is sung in honor of the extra soul and soulfulness that we receive on Shabbat.
Like many languages Hebrew has just one word for both poetry and song. This makes Az Yashir, Exodus 15:1–18, the first poem and the first song of the Torah. What makes it a poem? There is no consistent, repeating rhyme scheme in Az Yashir, so clearly that’s not what makes it (or any poem) a poem. When Az Yashir appears in a Torah scroll, in most versions of the Chumash or in the Siddur (from which we recite this song daily), the words are spaced in an unusual way. Some suggest the layout is meant to look like the pattern with which bricks are laid, reminding us of the brick work of Egypt from which the Jews were freed. Others see the sea, with the sun shining across it, in the way the words are spaced. Today this is called concrete or shape poetry.
Another poetic element of Az Yashir is the use of similes and metaphors: soldiers falling like rocks in water, God as a man of war, etc. There is the use of a tautogram, with one line featuring five words that begin with the same letter, alef, a device lost in translation and transliteration (“Amar oyeiv, ‘erdof, asig, achaleik” — “The foe said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil'”).
Az Yashir is called “this song,” shirah hazot, just like He’ezinu is, as if we are familiar with it. There’s a tradition that every part of creation has its own song. This is the song of the Jewish People from deep inside us that was waiting to be sung at the moment we became a nation. The Hebrew phrasing that tells us that they sang these words is doubled (“they said, saying…,” in Robert Alter’s translation), teaching us that they simply had to say it or they would burst.
This is the song of the Jewish People from deep inside us that was waiting to be sung at the moment we became a nation.
This week’s Shabbat Is called Shabbat Shirah, but really every Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah. This one is just more intense, the one that zeroes in our quintessential song, the Shir HaShirim Shabbat.
May we be blessed to appreciate Az Yashir and other poems of our tradition, like Nishmat, Anim Zemirot, Ashrei (and the rest of Tehillim), Maoz Tzur (which borrows from the imagery of Az Yashir) and so many more. Maybe pick one and make it yours, memorize it, carry it in your pocket, say it in intense times and be uplifted by it. Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is a teacher and guidance counselor at the Frisch School.
Friday, Jan. 29, 2021
Shevat 16, 5781
Light candles at 4:52 pm
Saturday, Jan. 30
Shevat 17, 5781
Torah Reading: Beshalach, Exodus 13:17- 7:16
Haftarah: Judges 4:4-5:31
Shabbat ends 5:54 pm