The Song at the Sea

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Song at the Sea

By Rav Michael Hattin




And it came to pass that when Pharaoh sent the people forth, the Lord did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was near.  This was because the Lord said: 'lest the people have a change of heart when they see warfare, and return to Egypt.'  So the Lord caused the people to turn towards the way of the wilderness, to Yam Suf, and the people of Israel went up from the land of Egypt armed.  Moshe took the bones of Yosef with him, for he had surely exacted an oath from the people of Israel saying: 'the Lord will surely remember you and you shall then take my bones out of here with you!" (13:17-19).


            Last week, we read of Israel's triumphant march from Egypt.  Their former taskmasters looked on in disbelief, now bent over and broken by the final hammer blow of the slaying of their first born, as Israel took leave of them, seemingly forever, and journeyed forwards to the land of Canaan.  Unexpectedly, though, God redirected their buoyant steps away from the more traveled route along the Mediterranean coastline, the so-called "Way of the Land of the Philistines," to instead enter the foreboding wilderness beyond Yam Suf.  There, He bid Israel to encamp along the coast of the azure sea, and with profound relief they did so.  The people were only too happy to break from their ceaseless march and to serenely contemplate their first true taste of freedom, even as the deep blue waves rhythmically lapped at the rocky shore. 


            But that moment of existential tranquility was short-lived, as Pharaoh's charioteers, thirsting for vengeance, unexpectedly appeared on the horizon like a whirlwind.  The people of Israel were instantly thrown into a frenzied panic, many of them now fervently wishing that they had never left the cruel crucible of Egyptian bondage at all.  Others, few in number, spoke of fighting, of dying as proud, liberated men, but most looked on petrified and paralyzed, intellectually aware of the dawning danger but emotionally unable to take any initiative to secure their own survival.




            Overwhelmed, the people cried out to God while focusing their intense distress on hapless Moshe:


They said to Moshe: 'were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to perish in the wilderness?  What have you done to us to take us out of Egypt?  Did we not say to you while we were yet in Egypt: 'Let us alone to serve the Egyptians, for serving them is better than perishing in the wilderness'?" (14:11-12).


Though himself unsure of God's intentions, Moshe responded with confidence and with courage:


Moshe said to the people: 'Do not be afraid!  Be steadfast and you will see the salvation of God that He will do for you this day, for though you see Egypt today, you will never see them again.  God will wage war for you, while you be silent!' (14:13-14).


Soon thereafter, the sea miraculously parted, and Israel descended uncertainly into its depths, while the ensuing Egyptian pursuit was forcefully and violently checked by the cascading waters.  Triumphant, the people of Israel broke forth in song, praising God's matchless prowess and now faithfully embracing Moshe as their rightful leader.  The Song at the Sea, whose soaring and lyrical verses comprise Chapter 15 of Sefer Shemot, is one of the great epic songs of the Hebrew Bible.  Before considering some of its general motifs, we take note of its curious graphical appearance, for in the Torah scroll (and in good editions of the Tanakh) it stands out from the rest of its context as something that is visually unique. 




            The Rabbis of the Talmud referred to this graphic form in the following passage:


Rabbi Chanina bar Papa said: Rav Sheila of Kefar Timrata expounded that all of the passages of Biblical song are written as 'half bricks arranged upon whole bricks' and 'whole bricks arranged upon half bricks.'  The exceptions to the rule are the list of the rogue Haman's ten sons (Esther 9:6-9) and the list of the kings of Canaan, for they are composed as half bricks arranged upon half bricks, and whole bricks upon whole bricks.  What is the reason for the distinction?  So that they should have no resurgence from their downfall (Talmud Bavli Megilla 16b). 


Rav Sheila means to say that each line of the song is divided into a stitch of text ('half brick') that is then separated by a blank space ('whole brick') from the concluding stitch of text, while the next line of song inverts the sequence, like this:


Then   Moshe   and    the    people    of    Israel   sang    this    song    to    God   and   they

said:                 I will sing out to God for He was triumphant,        horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea!                                               My strength and song are God, He is my salvation,                    this is my Lord and I will glorify Him,                the Lord of my ancestors and I shall exalt Him.                           God is a man of war, God is His name.                          Pharaoh's chariots and his host He cast into the sea,                  his choicest captains have been drowned in the sea of reeds…


The overall effect of the technique is to create an appearance of stacked elements, as each line of text sits solidly above a space and each space above a line.  The commentaries regarded the visual impact of the form as suggesting unusual stability, like a section of wall that had been solidly constructed by alternating its successive layers of bricks.  They interpreted the graphic structure literally, as an expression of the enduring permanence or truth of the song's message. 




            In contrast, the defeated Canaanite kings mentioned in Yehoshua Chapter 12 (or the ten sons of Haman named in Megillat Esther Chapter 9) are arranged as lengthy lists, like this:


These are the kings of the land that Yehoshua and the people of Israel struck down, on the western side of the River Jordan.  (Their territories extended) from Ba'al Gad in the Lebanon valley until the cleft hills that ascend to Se'ir; Yehoshua gave it to the tribes of Israel as an inheritance in accordance with their divisions.  (These lands included) the hills, the lowlands, the plain, the streambeds, the wilderness and the dry southern lands, the territories of the Chittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizite, Chivite, and Yevusite.


The king of Yericho                                          one;

The king of the A'i by Beit El                             one;

The king of Jerusalem                                       one;

The king of Chevron                                         one…

All of the kings thirty                                         and one (12:7-24).


Here, each line of the song is devoted to the mention of a single one of the vanquished kings.  It is divided into a longer stitch of text ('whole brick') that is then separated by a blank space from the shorter concluding stitch of text ('half brick').  Each successive line repeats the sequence, effectively creating two discrete columns of text separated by a large space.


            As above, the reason advanced by the Talmud to explain this other atypical form draws its inspiration from the world of structural engineering.  Up until the modern period and the advent of steel-reinforced concrete and curtain wall construction, a building's maximum height was strictly controlled by the relatively limited compressive strength of its material.  Greater height could only be achieved by widening the base of the structure so that the load could be more widely distributed.  Buildings that attempted to maintain a uniform floor area over the course of their rise would become inherently less stable once the design limits of their material had been reached, and typically could not exceed six to eight stories.  Thus, suggests the Talmud, the written form of these other songs is also an integral part of their interpretation.  The tall and slender columns of text preserving the names of wicked Haman's ten sons, comprising eleven lines or 'stories', are not only a literary record of their infamy but also an unspoken prayer that, having been toppled and deposed, their acts of villainy not recur. The list of Canaan's conquered kings, of even greater 'height', expresses the silent hope that Israel's triumph over their evil not be undone.     




            There is only one other example in the Tanakh of a song that shares the graphic form of our Song at the Sea and that is the triumphant ode sung by Devorah and Barak after their great and crushing victory over Yavin the King of Chatzor.  This menacing Canaanite tyrant, ably assisted by his henchman Sisera, harshly oppressed the Israelites some two centuries after the events of the Exodus as recorded in Sefer Shoftim (Book of Judges, Chapters 4-5).  Gathering nine hundred chariots of iron to the floodplain of Kishon, Sisera intended to crush the northern tribes of Israel whose forces had gathered opposite on the slopes of Mount Tavor, but a sudden downpour that turned the plain to impassable mudflat put an abrupt end to his plans.  Inspired by the prophetess Devorah and the chieftain Barak, the Israelite irregulars now descended from the hillside and overwhelmed the well-trained and better-equipped foe, inflicting a stinging defeat that was not soon forgotten by the inspired balladeers of later centuries (see Tehillim Chapter 83).


            While it is not possible to recount all of the details of the dramatic episode here, suffice it to say that the two accounts share many thematic parallels: both feature powerful and oppressive overlords armed with numerous chariots, both describe an Israelite people ill-prepared for battle and psychologically overawed, and in both situations miraculous and unexpected salvation is unleashed by torrents of rushing waters as the yoke of the tyrant is cast off forever.  It is therefore quite natural that Devorah and the Israelites would have experienced God's exploits at the wadi of Kishon as a potent memory of Israel's experiences at the shores of Yam Suf, and for the text of Sefer Shoftim to have emphasized that link by employing a similar graphic convention.


            At the same time, however, there are also pronounced differences between these two songs.  Chief among them is that the song of Moshe and Israel, only about two thirds the length of Devorah's epic, is a more narrowly focused and repetitious composition.  It describes God's might in effecting the immediate victory over Pharaoh and his host (Shemot 15:1-5), and then, as is frequently the case in Biblical poetry, describes it again utilizing different language and imagery (Shemot 15:6-12).  It goes on to intimate in the Egyptian defeat the future downfall of all of Israel's foes (Shemot 15:13-16), concluding with a prophetic and proleptic vision of Israel achieving stability and permanence in their land and ultimately building the Temple to glorify God (Shemot 15:17-19).  Suffused with inspiration, our Song's final note is decidedly eschatological in tone, proudly proclaiming for all of the world to hear: "God will reign forever and forever!" (Shemot 15:18). 




            When we analyze the matter closely, we discover in fact that there is only one single subject that is discussed in the Song at the Sea, and that is God's saving might – present and future: God overthrew the Egyptians, God foiled Pharaoh's nefarious plan, God will lead His people to Canaan and overwhelm the surrounding nations hostile to Israel's mission, and in the end God will prevail and rule forever.  The relative textual length assigned to the present and future salvations is understandably skewed: the downfall of Pharaoh and his host – immediate and vivid – accounts for the first twelve verses of the song; the hopes of victory over the Canaanites and surrounding peoples and the final vision of the Temple – far-off and indistinct – comprise its last seven verses.  Remarkably, according to the Song's central theme, Israel's role in securing its own salvation was and will be correspondingly small!


            The Song's central message of Divine concern and involvement, of Divine power and commitment, of eventual ascendancy and triumph, is one that cannot be repeated enough.  The people of Israel often seem to find themselves at the crossroads of one crisis or another, overwhelmed by dread and uncertain how to proceed.  The Song at the Sea points a way through the dark and deep waters, even as the enemy, enflamed with murderous intent, follows in hot pursuit.  As has happened so many times in the past, the fortunes of Israel can be transformed in an instant, and certain defeat can suddenly become glowing victory.  So may it be God's will.


Shabbat Shalom