In this week’s parsha, B’shalach, we read about the famous “Song of the Sea”, sung by the Jews after witnessing the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea. This song is so noteworthy that it was included by the men of the Great Assembly when they composed the Shacharit (morning) prayer service. As a result, we now recite this “song” everyday. As to the reason why the Jews composed this song, the Torah tells us (14:31 and 15:1) “And Israel saw the great hand of Hashem against Egypt and the nation feared Hashem and believed in Him and in his servant, Moshe. Then Moshe and the Jews will sing this song to Hashem….”.
Did you notice something strange in the wording? It should have said “Then Moshe and the Jews SANG this song to Hashem” not “Then Moshe and the Jews WILL sing this song to Hashem”! Why the switch–going from past tense to future tense?
In Sefer Kohelet (the Book of Ecclesiasties) Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) writes (1:3) “What benefit is there for man from all his effort that he will labor under the sun?” It sounds like Shlomo is basically saying “Don’t bother doing anything in this world because you won’t benefit from it anyway”. (Talk about depressing!) But the commentary Miveh Tzedek says that Shlomo was not just making a statement, rather he was asking and answering his own question in the same sentance. According to this explanation, we must insert a question mark after the word “effort”. This way, the first part of the verse is asking the question “What benefit is there for man from all his effort?” and then the second part answers with “That which he will labor under the sun”.
To explain what this means, the Rabbis tell us about a Midrash which says that in the end of days all the generations of the world will come to Hashem and ask “Who will sing before You shira (songs of praise)?” Whereupon Hashem will answer “Those who sang to me in the past will sing to Me now, as it says ‘Then Moshe and the Jews WILL sing'”. The idea is that the only thing we can benefit from in the next world is that which we do in this world (i.e the mitzvot). Once we get to the next world it’s too late to do anything, we can only reap the reward of what we did here on earth. So Shlomo is not telling us to refrain from doing anything in this world, rather he is saying that we should do all the mitzvot we can in this world in order to benefit from them in the next world. That’s why Ethics of the Fathers says (3:21) “This world is compared to a hallway before the World-to-Come. Prepare yourself in the hallway so that you may enter the banquethall”. We have to do all the Mitzvot we can in this world in order that we have something to benefit from in the World-to-Come. In the same way, only because Moshe and the Jews sang praise to Hashem in this world WILL they merit to sing to Him in the World-to-Come.
But there is something else troublesome here. The Jews witnessed 10 incredible plagues brought by their G-d upon their enemy in Egypt. Nothing like these plagues had ever been seen before or since in their ability to defy the laws of nature. Not only do the Jews see their G-d mete out appropriate retribution to their enemy, but He also takes them out of Egypt. This was also unheard of as no other nation subjugated by Egypt was EVER able to leave (at least not alive). So why wasn’t this enough to make the Jews believe in Hashem? Why didn’t they sing a song of praise to Him when they left Egypt?! And what exactly was it that made them believe in Him now? It can’t have been the splitting of the Sea, because why would “just another miracle” make them believe in Hashem more than the 10 plagues or the Exodus from Egypt?
If you noticed, the verse here says that the Jews saw the “Yad HaGedolah–great hand” of Hashem against Egypt. In last week’s parsha the hand of Hashem is described as (13:16) “Yad HaChazakah–the strong hand”. You will see that throughout the Torah, Hashem’s hand is characterized as either the “strong” hand or the “great” hand. What’s the difference? In last week’s parsha, Ohr HaChaim (R. Chaim Attar) mentioned that Yad HaChazakah represents His attribute of “Gevurah–strength” which involves retribution for the negative things that people do. Conversely, Yad HaGedolah represents His attribute of “Chesed–kindness” which involves paying back good for the positive things that people do.
In the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah talks mainly about the Yad HaChazakah of Hashem, which He demonstrated by bringing the ten plagues on the Egyptians to afflict them. (Even though “Yad HaGedolah” is mentioned once or twice, Ohr HaChaim says this merely implies that the attribute of Chesed went along with the attribute of justice–the dominant player). The main purpose of the plagues was less to save the Jews than it was to punish the Egyptians for what they did to Hashem’s people as well as to establish Hashem as the most powerful force in the world. In the story of the splitting of the sea, the hand that is mentioned is the Yad HaGedolah. The main purpose of that miracle was not to afflict the enemy, but to save the Jews from the enemy once and for all. Now that the Jews saw Hashem’s “great” hand in saving them in addition to His “strong” one which punished their enemy, their belief in Him intensified.
But it goes even further than that. In this “Song of the Sea” it describes the Egyptians drowning in the sea in three different ways. The first time it says (15:5) “They went down like stone”. The second time it says (15:7) “They were eaten like straw”. The third time it says (15:10) “They rolled like lead in the strong waters”. So which one was it? Did they drown like straw, lead or stone? The answer is, yes. Rashi tells us that the most evil of the Egyptians who tortured the Jews at every opportunity, drowned like straw. Just as straw bobs up and down in the water, so did these evil Egyptians before they finally drowned. This resulted in their enduring a long and torturous death. The Egyptians who were less evil to the Jews but still abused them when they could, drowned like stone which only bobs up and down a few times before sinking to the bottom. Thus, death for this less-evil group came a bit quicker than the “straw” group. Finally, those Egyptians who really didn’t go out of their way to harm the Jews but were just “following orders”, drowned like lead. Lead does not bob up and down at all but immediately sinks to the bottom. So this group experienced a relatively quick and painless death by drowning immediately.
When the Jews saw this miracle, NOW they were really impressed. It’s one thing to see your G-d stick up for you by afflicting those who harm you. It’s another thing to see that same G-d perform an incredible miracle to save you. But it’s even more incredible to see that G-d care enough to be extremely fair in differentiating the type of death that was deserved by each person among the enemy, based on that person’s actions. Seeing this amazing aspect of Hashem’s Yad HaGedolah made the Jews want to believe in Him even more than before.
Perhaps if more people saw the Yad Hagedolah aspect of Hashem, belief in Him would be so much easier. In fact, if people would exhibit their “Yad HaGedolah” more often to their fellow human being, the world would be a much easier place to live in.