This week we read one of the more famous parts of the Torah, the Song of the Sea, or Shirat Ha-Yam. There are quite a few elements that make this section of Parashat Beshalach unique. Visually, the text in the Torah Scroll itself is arranged in a very different way. It is written at about double the usual column width, with lines alternating between three sections of text and two, resembling a brick wall.
Thematically, it is not like any other celebratory poem from that time period. The text is not extolling the heroics of any one man, such as poems in Egypt which sang praises to Pharaoh. The entire poem in our case is singing a song of praise to God, not Moses or Aaron. The effect is to make God the centre of the story of what occurred in Egypt and in our lives.
The text of the poem also gives a curious element in that it is not clear if it is written in the past or the future tense. Indeed, Biblical grammar does not have tenses as we understand them. Words only take on a particular tense based on context. Therefore, because we know the preceding events of the Exodus, we assume that the poem is speaking in the past tense. In a famous commentary, the rabbis examine the opening line of the poem ( אז ישיר, Az Yashir) and look at the different ways it could be read. In the commonly accepted version, it is translated as “Then he sang.” However, it could be read as, “Then he will sing.” It does get confusing because, at the end of the poem, the text again moves to the future, speaking of the sanctuary that God will establish. So, it would make sense, based on a balanced structure, that the beginning and end would be in the future tense and the middle the past. But, why would it be written that way?
The text of this famous poem is here not simply to remind us of that incredible moment of redemption thousands of years ago and God’s action in our lives then, but also the possibilities of that redemption today and the closeness of God in our lives today. The rabbis felt so strongly about this poem and its message that they included it in the daily prayers. Every day, including holidays, we sing the song of the sea.
I pray this week that we recall not only things that have happened, but we keep hope for things that will happen and remember the relationship with God that has been ever present in our lives and will continue to be.