The haftara for Parashat Beshalach, taken from Sefer Shoftim (4-5), tells of Benei Yisrael’s resounding victory over the Canaanites who had oppressed them for twenty years, and the joyous song of praise sung by their leaders – the general, Barak, and the prophetess, Devora – to celebrate the triumph.
This story, like many others in Sefer Shoftim, begins with Benei Yisrael abandoning God and resorting to foreign worship: “The Israelites continued to do evil in the eyes of God…and so He handed them over to Yavin, king of Canaan…” (4:1). Following the pattern that runs through much of Sefer Shoftim, Benei Yisrael faced a dire crisis after abandoning God’s laws, and they then responded to their crisis by repenting and crying to God for help, in response to which He had a leader arise who led them to victory.
As the Midrash (Shir Hashirim Rabba 4:3) famously notes, however, this victory over the Canaanites appears to have been unique. We read that after the victory, Benei Yisrael enjoyed a forty-year period of peace and security (5:31), after which Benei Yisrael “did evil in the eyes of the Lord,” whereupon they came under attack by the nation of Midyan. The Midrash finds it significant that Benei Yisrael are described here not as “continuing” to betray God – the way their betrayal is normally described in Sefer Shoftim – but rather as “doing evil.” The implication, the Midrash notes, is that the nation’s betrayal of God after the defeat over the Canaanites did not continue the previous instances of betrayal, but rather began an entirely new chapter. The Midrash explains, “Kevar machala shira le-she-avar” – the song of praise which they sung brought them complete forgiveness for their past. The song, fundamentally, marked an end to the cycle of betrayal-crisis-repentance-salvation, such that when Benei Yisrael did once again turn to foreign worship, this was an entirely new development, and not a continuation of the previous pattern. Therefore, they are described not as “continuing” their sinful conduct, but rather simply as sinning.
How might we understand this notion, of shira (song of praise) erasing past mistakes, such that mistakes made subsequently mark a new page, and not a recurrence of past misconduct?
Over the course of life, we make many mistakes, and we oftentimes fail, in one way or another. This grim reality can sometimes lead us to view life as but a dismal pattern of failure, where one mistake follows another, albeit separated by small gaps of successes. The Midrash here perhaps teaches us how to avoid this dark, gloomy perspective on life – through “shira,” by genuinely and fervently celebrating our successes and good fortune. If we experience true joy, pride, gratitude and satisfaction when we achieve, when we succeed, when we do things right, then we drop the “baggage” of our past failures, so it does not accompany us to our next mistake. If we “sing” and rejoice after experiencing success, we stop our disappointment from accumulating into a weighty, debilitating emotional burden. Otherwise, if we do not properly appreciate and feel proud of our successes, we will view them as nothing more but brief flashes of light in a generally dark, unproductive life. The Midrash here urges us to “sing,” to celebrate, to appreciate and to feel gratified over our accomplishments, in order to ensure that we approach each mistake as a separate, independent misstep, and not part of a hopeless, lifelong pattern of failure.