Two Great Songs
This week’s reading prominently features the Song of the Sea—the song that the Israelites sang after their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15). For this reason, this Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shirah, the “Sabbath of the Song.” Actually, this same song is recited as part of the regular morning prayers every day in synagogue, weekdays and Sabbaths alike. What is more, it is mentioned again in the blessings that precede the morning and evening recitation of the Amidah (the Shemoneh Esreh). One might say that this song captures the very essence of Israel’s celebration and thanksgiving any time it receives God’s help.
But the way the song is mentioned before the Amidah is a bit strange. The text says, “Moses and the Israelites sang the Song to You in great joy, and everyone said, ‘Who is like You among the heavenly ones, O Lord? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders’” (Exod 15:11).
What is unusual here is that the prayer doesn’t introduce the Song by its first verse, “I will sing to the Lord, for He has gloriously triumphed.” Wouldn’t this be the natural way to refer to it? Instead, the prayer mentions a verse from the Song’s middle, “Who is like You, majestic in holiness.” If I may offer a secular comparison, it would be like saying, “At the start of the game, everyone stood up and burst into song, saying, ‘And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air…’” If you want to report that everyone sang the national anthem, wouldn’t you say that everyone stood up and sang, “Oh say, can you see…”?
Even stranger is what comes next in this morning prayer. “The redeemed ones sang a new song to Your name on the edge of the [Red] Sea. Everyone gave thanks and proclaimed Your kingship, saying, ‘The Lord will reign forever and ever’ (Exod 15:18).” A new song? This is the last verse of the same song that we were just talking about, the Song of the Sea. What makes it “new”? And why quote the last verse?
The answer to all these questions lies in the actual contents of the Song of the Sea. It indeed starts out as a song of thanksgiving for God’s splitting of the Red Sea. The Israelites sing about what has just happened to them, right up until verse 11, “Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders…” But then the Song goes on to mention all sorts of things that the Israelites couldn’t possibly know at that moment: “In Your kindness You guided the people whom You saved, in Your strength You led them to the abode of Your holiness.” Presumably, this refers to the entrance into the holy land—which hadn’t happened yet! The Song continues: “When the nations heard they were astounded, a shaking seized the inhabitants of Philistia, the Edomite chiefs were panicked,” and so on and so forth, right up until “The Lord will reign forever and ever.” How could the Israelites know that these things were going to happen? And who were they to say that God would reign forever and ever?
Our rabbis’ answer to these questions is surprising. They essentially drew a line in the middle of the Song of the Sea: the first part was indeed thanksgiving for what had already occurred, but the second part was in the nature of a prophecy, perhaps uttered by the prophet Moses and then just echoed by the assembled masses. After all, only a prophet could know that God would lead His people to Canaan or how the Philistines, Edomites, and so forth would react to the news.
So, when it came to mentioning the first song, the rabbis referred to it not by its opening verse, but by the point at which this first song is divided from the second one, namely, at verse 11, “Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders…” Then, as the words of the prayer continue, Israel sang a new song, a prophetic description of all that was to happen thereafter. (It may be that this original rationale for thinking that there are two songs was eventually forgotten; see b. Talmud Rosh ha-Shanah 31a concerning the Shabbat minhah service in the Temple.)
In any case, if this Shabbat celebrates not one song but two, then it may also be suggesting in the process that past miracles are sometimes followed up by new ones, commemorated even before they occur.