The centerpiece of this week’s parsha is clearly the “Shirat Hayam”, which has lent its name to the entire Shabbat, known to us as “Shabbat Shira”.
The section of Shirat Hayam is one of the most famous parts of the Torah and has been incorporated into the teffilot of every single day. I would like to focus on what seems to be a minor detail regarding the shira, but I believe reflects a very fundamental key to understanding our entire parsha.
The detail is simply, what is the last pasuk of the shira? How long is the shira — 18 or 19 pessukim? Shirat Hayam obviously starts with the words “Az Yashir Moshe…” (Shemot 15:1) but it is not clear how it ends. The Ibn Ezra comments on pasuk 19 “In my opinion this verse is also part of the shira…”. His comment alludes to those who disagree with him – and we will see the logic behind both positions in a moment – however I would like to first examine the problem on a purely visual basis, not requiring any knowledge whatsoever of the Hebrew language.
If we take a look at the script of the Torah we see that the shira is written in a special manner not found elsewhere. Rather than having the letters and words flow across the page, this section of the Torah is written in “brick form”, as follows:
Xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx
Xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxxxxx
(This poetic form of the script is also found near the end of the Torah in Parshat Haazenu, in a different format).
If we take a look at the text we will find that the 19th verse is laid out in the same manner as the previous 18, and the standard Torah layout resumes as of verse 20. This would seem to be a clear indication that this verse is an integral part of the shira.
The problem begins when we try to understand the 19th verse, linguistically, and see if it fits into the rest of the poem. The pasuk states, “When Pharoh’s horses, chariots and warriors entered the sea, God turned the waters on them; and the Jews walked on the dry land in the sea.” This doesn’t seem to be very poetic at all. The pasuk seems to be a dry description of the event (pun intended), or to quote the Ramban, such language is not used “in songs and prophecies”; in short, it is narrative and not poetic.
The Ibn Ezra maintains that the meaning of the verse and its incorporation into the shira is to stress an additional element of the miracle; not only did the Jews cross the dry sea bed and not only were the Egyptians drowned in the sea, but both of these events took place simultaneously. “When Pharoh’s horses, chariots and warriors entered the sea, at that very same moment, God turned the waters on them; and the Jews walked on the dry land in the sea”. The final verse of the shira, according to Ibn Ezra, stresses the supernatural events that took place on that fateful day.
The Ramban seems to object to the reading of the Ibn Ezra on linguistic grounds and prefers to see the pasuk as part of the narrative. The shira was said (sung) as it was happening, at that very moment. It could be that the Ramban is noting that, as opposed to many other historic events that are not recognized as being significant until much later, this miraculous event was immediately seen for what it was and the shira was the natural reaction to such an event.
Rabenu Bahaye is much more adamant than the Ramban. He points not only to the linguistic element but sees a mystical one as well:
“You should know that this song has 18 pesukim, and it could be corresponding to the 18 vertebrae of the spine that will be revived during the Resurrection of the Dead and will sing out. This is what the Rabbis have taught, that the shira starts in the future (yashir) as a hint to the Resurrection of the Dead in the Torah. And you will find this as well in Yeshayahu (26:1-18) concerning the shir that will be sung at the end of time – it also contains 18 pessukim…”
He maintains that Shirat Hayam must end after verse 18 due to the significance of the number. I think that there may be a literary support of this idea in a more broad sense. If the shira ends with verse 18, the “punch line” is “Hashem Yimloch Lolam Vaed” -“Hashem will reign forever”. According to the Ramban and Rabenu Bahaye this turns into the highlight of the entire chapter. As a concept, it is not obvious that God’s everlasting rule is what I would stress in this context; the Exodus and the crossing of the sea have many lessons to teach us.
Chazal have adopted this as the main lesson of the entire shira, Kabalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – accepting the yoke of heaven. We see this if we examine our teffilot after the daily Shema. At Shacharit we say:
“They willingly accepted His reign, Moshe and Bnei Yisrael, and said Shira with great joy and they all exclaimed: ‘who is similar to you amongst the gods…’. They sang a new Shira to your name on the banks of the sea; they all thanked you and MADE YOU KING and said ‘HASEM WILL REIGN FOREVER'”.
Both in the morning and at night we use the story of this week’s parsha to indicate a full acceptance of Hashem’s rule in the world. It follows the Shema, which is meant to do the same, and is an illustration of the Shema actually being implemented in the real world.
This view of Shirat Hayam, as the crystal clear example of accepting God, is also reflected in a later custom of incorporating the shira into our Pesukei Dzimra. Each and every morning before beginning shema we finish the introductory praise of the day with the shira. However we make a couple of slight, yet significant changes. When we get to verse 18 we do not simply read it but rather we read it and repeat it a second time and then translate it to Aramaic, before continuing on to read verse 19. After that we add different quotes from Tehilim, Ovadiah and Zecharia where we essentially skip from the time of Egypt to the “end of days” where everyone recognizes God’s oneness. The manner in which we treat the shira is clearly meant to highlight the aspect of Kabalat Ol Malchut Shamayim which is apparent in the shira. Many people have the custom to add an additional passuk – Shma Yisrael …
Essentially we use the shira and the Shema as different expressions of the same idea – the acceptance of the reign of God. In a similar vein we find that on Rosh Hashana when we quote the various pesukim referring to Malchut the first one is verse 18 from the shira itself.
In the context of Sefer Shemot it would seem that our parsha not only closes the story of the exodus from Egypt but at the same time opens the next episode of the accepting of the Torah by starting with the most basic point, recognizing God’s reign.