“Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing this song to Hashem (Az yashir Moshe uvnei Yisrael), and they said the following: I shall sing to Hashem for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea”. (Shemot 15 / 1)
The word “Az” or “Then”, seems strangely out of place, and has attracted many of our most famous commentaries to comment:
Rashi explains that when Moses saw the miracle “then” – “az” he decided that he must sing, and that is exactly what he did.
The Keli Yakar adds, that it was only “then” “az” that Moses sang. Before hand, during the actual Exodus from Egypt, Moses chose not to sing, because he knew that in their heart of hearts, the people were still lacking in their belief of Hashem. However, upon seeing the commitment of the people to Hashem at the splitting of the sea, “then” Moses sings. As a father at the graduation of his son, Moshe sings with joy at the accomplishments of his own flesh and blood.
The Beit Halevi quotes a Midrash from Shemot Rabbah 23:5, in order to understand the use of the word ‘then – az’: Moses said, ” I sinned with ‘then – az’ for I said, ‘Since then (az) that I came to speak to Pharoah, he has done evil to this people…'(Shemot 5:23). Therefore, with ‘then – az’ I recite song.”
How did Moshe rectify his sin simply by repeating a phrase that he had once misused?
There are two types of gratitude that one can express to Hashem following deliverance from suffering: Usually, one is just grateful for having been rescued and consequently praises Hashem. He feels no more joy at being rescued than he would if he had never been in distress to begin with. His suffering in itself is no cause for thanksgiving.
However, when Moshe and the Jewish people rejoiced at the Yam Tzuf, they were in fact celebrating something else. More than their salvation, they were rejoicing at having been the instrument of Hashem’s glorification. As they sang, “I will sing to Hashem for He is exalted…” They actually celebrated their slavery as much as their rescue, for had they never been enslaved, there could have been no miraculous deliverance by Hashem.
This is what Moshe meant by sinning with “then -az”. At first he complained about the severity of the enslavement. But in the end, “with ‘then – az’ I recite song”. Ultimately, he sang praises over the very bondage he had bemoaned, just as he sang about the redemption. This idea sheds light upon the verse “I praise You for You have afflicted me and have been a salvation to me” (Tehillim 118:21). I give thanks to You even for my affliction, for it prompted Your salvation, through which I became a vehicle for the sanctification of Your name throughout the world. Therefore I praise you for both my affliction and my salvation.
This idea so beautifully explained by HaRav Yosef Dov Ber Soloveitchik, is, to my mind emphasized during the first night of Pesach. I have often wondered as to the need of a “seder plate”. If it is placed on the table for practical reasons, it is clearly inadequate to say the least. There is no room on the plate for the halachik quantities required by all those present in order to fulfill their respective obligations regarding matzah, maror etc…We are therefore forced to conclude that the presence of this plate is essentially for symbolic reasons.
The symbolism is there to show us that we are not simply celebrating the actual salvation from Egyptian rule, but we are in fact celebrating the slavery as well. The plate is adorned with symbols of slavery such as charoset, maror, as well as symbols of freedom, such as matzah and the shank bone. The message of the Beit halevi is of incredible significance. We celebrate Hashem whatever the apparent reality is. This is what Moshe realizes at Yam Tzuf, that in essence he should have sung in slavery in the same way that he wishes to sing now, and it is with this in mind that he opens his song.
Rav Zevin, using the same Midrash explains slightly differently. The sin of Moshe when he complained to Hashem using the word “az” “then”, was that all he was able to see was the current deteriorating predicament of Am Yisrael. He could not see further than the problems of the moment. He rectified this mistake with the words “az yashir”, relating not only to the miracle of today, but also to the entire future of Am Yisrael.
That is to say, Moshe has understood the need for a global perspective, and thus when he sings he does not simply sing for the moment, but forever more.
The ‘sin of Moshe’ as explained by Rav Zevin is, to my mind, the prominent problem of our generation. So many of us are so caught up with the day-to-day difficulties that we have to deal with, that more often than not we forget the overall picture. Living in Israel today, one can often get so upset by the daily news, that one forgets the greatness of our reality. How many Jews have merited seeing what we have seen? How many Jews have been able to have the Old City of Yerushalayim as their home? How many Jews have merited living in their Homeland with their Army, and their own Government?
I know that these are words that you have all heard from me on many occasions, but specifically now we must drive these points home. We must understand, that however bad it may or may not be now, we have not had it as good as this since the days of the First Mikdash. We must overcome the first ‘az’ of Moshe Rabbeinu, and reach the level of ‘az yashir’. We must aim to look further than today.
Rav Hutner in his famous work “Pachad Yitzchak” comments that prayer does not come as a result of trauma, on the contrary, trauma comes in order to bring about prayer. Thus we understand the statement of ‘az yashir’ to be a climatic statement. All that had happened until this moment had been a medium to reach the level of Shira. We often look at our prayer as a tool in which to reach Hashem in order to fulfill our needs, in order to have our wishes granted. However, Rav Hutner points out that the role of prayer is quite the opposite. In fact the events that we live through are a medium in order to cause us to pray.
This understanding of Shira is of great importance, it means, essentially, that Shira is a madrega, it is a spiritual reality, it is the result of a person understanding all that he has gone through and attributing it to the almighty, it is a climatic ends.
From this we can understand the concept of ‘Shevii shel Pessach”. On this day we are reaching the climax of Yetziat Mitzrayim. Yetziat Mitzrayim was essentially a means for man to reach the level of Shira.
When we open our siddurim thrice daily, we should try to remind ourselves of this strong message, our tefillah to Hashem is an ends and not a means.
This idea is quite beautifully explained by a commentary to Talmud known as “Hakotev”.
The Talmud in Berachot (4b), tells us that whoever says “Ashrei” three times a day is guaranteed a place in the world to come.
Why should this be the case, why should the mere recital of a specific Psalm three times a day, provide the key to a place in the World to Come?
Hakotev explains, that this Talmudic passage should be understood in the following way:
The Psalm of ashrei is a Psalm whose content is in total praise of the Almighty. There are no specific requests. Each sentence is one of ultimate praise and acknowledgement of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
The Talmud is telling us, that one who prays in the form of ashrei three times a day, that is to say, if one were to pray to Hashem not in order to receive from Him, but simply in order to serve Him, as an end in itself, if that were the mode that we approached our prayers with, then we would surely be worthy of a place in the World to Come.