In loving memory of
Yitzchak ben Chaim Zvi Schwartz z"l, who passed away on 13 Shvat 5771
And Sheva Shneidel bat David Schwartz z"l, who passed away 13 Shvat 5778
Dedicated by Avi and Sarah Schwartz
We read in Parashat Beshalach the “Shirat Ha-yam” – the special song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after the miracle of the splitting of the sea, a song which has been incorporated into the daily Pesukei De-zimra text recited each morning. This song is introduced with the phrase, “Az yashir Moshe u-Vnei Yisrael et ha-shira ha-zot” – “Then did Moshe and the Israelites sing this song…” (15:1).
The word “yashir,” as several commentators noted, is actually written in the future tense, as if implying that Moshe and Benei Yisrael will sing this song in the future. On the simple level of interpretation, as Ibn Ezra writes, this is nothing more than a poetic style, and indeed, several other examples exist in Tanakh of verbs conjugated in the future tense after the word “az” (“then”) but refer to past events. For example, we read in Sefer Devarim (4:41), “Az yavdil Moshe shalosh arim” – that Moshe designated three cities as cities of refuge, an event which clearly happened in the past, despite the verb “yavdil” being conjugated in the future tense. Rashi adds that this construction denotes a conscious decision or firm resolve to perform the action. In this case, “Az yashir” means that Moshe and Benei Yisrael reached the decision that the extraordinary events they had just experienced warranted a special song of praise.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b), however, as Rashi cites, suggests interpreting the word “yashir” in this verse as actually referring to the future, such that the Torah here alludes to the time of the resurrection of the dead. The verse is formulated in a manner that could be understood to mean that Moshe and Benei Yisrael – who, of course, have already passed on – will yet sing this song, indicating that the dead will one day be returned to life, whereupon this song will be sung.
What might be the point of connection between the Shirat Ha-yam and the future resurrection? Why might have the Gemara pointed to this verse, which introduces Benei Yisrael’s exuberant song of praise, as the Biblical allusion to the future restoration of life to the dead?
The Tolna Rebbe suggested that the message expressed by the Gemara relates to the “resurrection” of those who are “lifeless” in the figurative sense. The Gemara perhaps seeks to draw our attention to the power of shira, of exultant and heartfelt song, to restore joy, vitality and hope to those languishing in sorrow or despair. The key – or one of the keys – to techiyat ha-meitim, to bringing energy and vigor to a broken spirit, is joyous song.
The Shirat Ha-yam was sung at a moment of great triumph and inspiration, when Benei Yisrael witnessed an unprecedented, dramatic miracle that saved them from what had seemed like a hopeless situation. The Gemara’s comment, as understood by the Tolna Rebbe, takes note of the fact that joyful, spirited singing is also meaningful and beneficial in the opposite circumstance – in times of pain and distress. Just as the Shirat Ha-yam gave expression to the people’s overwhelming feelings of elation, singing can also help restore “life” to those burdened by anguish or fear, repairing their broken spirits and lifting them so they can once again experience confidence and vitality even as they deal with difficult challenges.