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  • Rabbi Edward Friedman

Thoughts on the Song of the Sea

As we have seen in our explorations in the P'sukei D'zimrah over the past months, the authors of our prayerbook found it difficult to limit the praises offered

to the Almighty. In my essay a couple of weeks ago, I pointed out the natural conclusion that we find after the recitation of the daily Hallel psalms, Psalms 146 – 150. These enthusiastic words of praise, each opening and closing with the word Halleluyah, Praise the Lord, are followed by a brief concluding collection of verses intended to mark the ends of each book of Psalms with great praise to God, a fitting finale to this chorus of praise. Yet, in our current version of P'sukei D'zimrah, this is not the end. Instead we move from Psalms to a section containing two biblical excerpts filled with praise culminating in Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea or, more accurately, the Song sung at the Sea by the newly liberated people of Israel.

It is not clear exactly when this section got added and, it seems, there is some variation in early medieval siddurim as to its placement in the service. It currently appears in the prayerbook preceded by two introductory passages, one from Chronicles which does indeed include words of praise by King David and the other from the book of Nehemiah. In our earliest extant prayerbook, that of Rav Amram Gaon from the 9th century, this section of the service does appear minus the passage from Nehemiah. According to Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Rav Amram's predecessor, Rav Natronai Gaon explains explicitly why he does not add this passage. By the 11th century, says Hoffman, it was becoming common in Europe to say the Song of the Sea at least on Shabbat probably, he suggests, because of a Talmudic tradition that it had been sung on Shabbat in the Temple. Eventually, says Hoffman, it became a daily staple, though there was still no agreement exactly where to place it in the service. Maimonides, for example, puts it after the P'sukei D'zimrah, while the French school of Rashi's students puts it in its present place as an addition to the Psalms of P'sukei D'zimrah.

The commentators feel that adding this passage which emphasizes God's role in history, particularly His connection to the people of Israel, is an appropriate counterweight to the emphasis in the Psalms on God's role in nature and as Sovereign of all people in the world. As we'll see, the section leads to a triumphant conclusion, foreshadowing the ultimate redemption of the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.

The two introductory passages, come from books that are too often neglected by most of us, as they appear near the end of the Bible almost as an afterthought. Yet they are quite interesting as they retell some of the early history of our people from a different perspective, than the books of Samuel and Kings, and in doing so add many interesting details to the narrative. The first excerpt from the final chapter of First Chronicles, comes from a narrative in which King David assembles all the people near the end of his reign and informs them of his plans regarding a future Temple to be built by his successor, his son King Solomon. David had wanted to build the Temple himself, but since he was known as a man of war, he is informed by God that it would be inappropriate for him to build this structure dedicated to peace. Instead, David has made detailed plans for the Temple and amassed a large sum of money and precious metals for its ultimate construction. At this assembly, he raises a large additional sum to add to his treasury for this sacred purpose. At this point in the narrative, comes our excerpt:

“David blessed the Lord, in front of all the assemblage; David said, Baruch ata Adonay, {one of only two places in the Bible where this familiar formula appears), Blessed are You, Lord, God of Israel our father, from eternity to eternity. (Now a verse which is familiar from the Torah service, L'cha Adonay hagedulah...) Yours, O Lord, are greatness, might, splendor, triumph, and majesty – yes, all that is in heaven and on earth; to You, Lord, belong kingship and preeminence above all. Riches and honor are Yours to dispense; You have dominion over all, with You are strength and might; and it is in Your power to make anyone great and strong. Now, God, we praise You and extol Your glorious name.” It is interesting to note that in light of this passage occurring in the midst of David's fund-raising campaign for the future temple, that in some synagogues it was customary to pass the tzedakah box around right at this point so worshipers might emulate the generosity of their ancestors.

These verses provide an introduction, but we still need a transition to get to the Song at the Sea. That transition is provided by a different ceremony held by Nehemiah some 500 or so years later. At this ceremony, the people living in the restored second commonwealth are brought back into the divine covenant. A group of Levites stand before the crowd as a detailed history of the people from Abraham on, including many events during the wanderings in the wilderness are recounted. Our excerpt starts at the beginning of the narrative and jumps off when we get to the crossing of the sea: “You heard their cry by the Red Sea; You brought signs and wonders before Pharaoh and all his servants and all the people of the land, for You knew they were cruel unto them; You made a name for Yourself until this day; You parted the sea before them so that they passed through the sea on dry land; and You cast their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters.”

This narrative leads almost seamlessly into a couple of prose verses from Exodus that precede the Song itself: “So on that day the Lord saved Israel from the power of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the great power that the Lord displayed before the Egyptians. The nations feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in Moses his servant.”

The word translated here as “power” is actually “yad” the hand of God. It is this image which leads to the playful midrash in the Haggadah comparing the plagues in Egypt done by “the finger of God” to those at the sea accomplished through God's hand, fivefold miracles. Indeed the rabbis felt that this splitting of the sea was the greatest of miracles. What the average Israelite witnessed at the sea was greater than any of the visions of the prophets they claimed.

Our prayerbook proceeds to present the full text of the song at the sea. For the rabbis, in addition to celebrating past victories, this song was seen as a prophecy of the future redemption of Israel. Though the opening words of the song “Az yashir Moshe uv'nei Yisrael” are translated in the past tense, “then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song” the word “yashir” is in the imperfect or future tense and thus may be read as a prediction for times to come “Then Moses and the children of Israel will sing this song.” It is cited as proof of the rabbinic belief in the resurrection of the dead, found already in the Torah. At that indeterminate time in the future, Moses will again arise to lead his people, from the diaspora to the Holy Land, the land of promise.

The song is a joyful one of triumph in which God is not pictured as an old man with a flowing beard sitting in judgment on high, but rather as a youthful warrior, as we read in the An'im Zemirot hymn, “Ziknah b'yom din uvacharut b'yom k'rav” “old age on the day of judgment but youth in the day of battle.”

Scholars have noted that the details of the events at the Red Sea as described in the song do not match up exactly with the prose narrative. Also, though it is acknowledged that the song is quite ancient, nonetheless it includes apparent references to the Holy Temple which was not built until several hundred years after the crossing of the sea. So while this song's origins may come from the events at the sea, it did not reach its final form until the 10th century BCE. after Solomon had built the Temple.

Two lines in particular are very familiar to us since they are quoted in both the evening and morning service in the prayer of redemption, the geulah blessing. We sing “Mi chamocha ba-elim Adonay, mi kamocha ne'edar bakodesh, nora tehilot oseh fele.” “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods, who is like you, adorned in holiness, awesome in praises, doer of wonders.” Some argue that at this stage in Israelite history, it was acknowledged that there were other gods around, but none like the God of Israel. Clearly in the Nehemiah passage written centuries later, there is no longer any belief even in subordinate gods. We today would simply read it as referring to those whom others might worship and call gods while we would not recognize them as such.

There are echoes toward the end of the poem of verses from the book of Joshua, as it speaks of the fear gripping the inhabitants of Canaan and its surrounding nations as they “melt” before the approach of Israel and its God. The trembling nations, however, are mainly the enemies that were later subdued by King David.

The concluding verse of the song which proclaims God's sovereignty is also included in our prayers of redemption, “Adonay yimloch l'olam vaed,” “The Lord shall reign forever and ever.” In our passage here, this verse is traditionally recited a second time for emphasis. By this miraculous event and the great victory over Egypt, God's pre-eminence in the world is established.

Many of us are aware of the famous midrash about the song at the sea in which the angels on high begin to join the Israelites in their joyful song after their safe crossing and the defeat of the Egyptian army, sinking in the depths of the sea. God stops them from joining in by reminding the angels that those drowning in the sea are also God's creatures. This rabbinic sensitivity to the loss of life even of one's enemy has led to the Passover traditions of removing drops of wine from our cup at the seder and to limiting the recitation of the joyous Psalms of Hallel on the last six days of Passover.

You may notice in the Lev Shalem siddur that we are using for our Zoom worship, a couple of additional verses from Exodus are included to remind us that not only Moses and the male Israelites sang this song, but we are specifically told of Miriam, Moses's sister, going forth with the women and their timbrels and chanting the song as well: “Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand and went out, followed by all the women, with timbrels and dance. And Miriam led them in response, 'Sing to Adonai who has triumphed gloriously, who cast horse and rider into the sea.'”

As we conclude the song here in P'sukei D'zimrah, we add three verses, one from Psalms and two from the prophets at the end. These verses underline the application of this ancient song to our future hopes for the ultimate redemption of the world. Having proclaimed God Sovereign at the end of the song of the sea, we add the verse from Psalms, “For dominion is the Lord's, who rules over the nations.” This is followed by the final verse of the book of Obadiah, “Deliverers shall go up to Mount Zion to rule Esau's mountain, and dominion shall be the Lord's.” We end with the verse from Zechariah which appears also at the conclusion of the Alenu, “And the Lord shall be king over the entire earth. On that day, the Lord shall be one and his name shall be one.”

Traditionally cantors begin making the musical transition from the nusach, the melodic mode, of P'sukei D'zimrah, to the nusach for Shacharit, the main portion of the morning worship during these final verses. On weekdays, this passage is followed by the closing blessing of Yishtabach. On Shabbat, however, Yishtabach is the conclusion of a lengthy passage that begins with the words “nishmat kol chay t'varech et shimcha...” “the breath of all the living shall praise Your name.” Though I've written about the last section of that prayer, I intend to return in a future essay to discuss the rest of the passage.

So what we see in this section of the song at the sea is a grand conclusion to our introductory prayers. Having chanted our praise of the Creator in the Psalms of David, we crown God as King once more by acknowledging His powerful acts on our behalf and in so doing we express our hopes for the day when God's sovereignty will be acknowledged by all people throughout the world.


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