If words are the pen of the heart, then song is the pen of the soul
-Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
In his article “Words of Song,” on Chabad.org, Tzvi Freeman wrote, “You can’t think prayers without speaking them, or speak without thinking them. And they aren’t prayers until you sing them.” In short, he suggests that prayer is not fully prayer until it contains that ineffable spark that only true song brings to it.
Az yashir – then Moshe and Bnei Yisrael will sing. “Az” exists in the past; “Yashir” speaks of the future. When Bnei Yisrael stood on the far shore of the sea as a free nation, its song was not solely of a temporal triumph, not merely of the “present.” Az yashir – Then they “will” sing. Their “song” rose above the moment; their spontaneous shira embraced the experience of their brutal past even as it proclaimed a vision of their grand future. Their shira transcended time. As Rashi teaches, Az (then) when they saw the miracle, the thought entered their hearts to sing a shira.
The song Moshe and Bnei Yisrael sang is timeless, bridging a moment in the past to the promise of the future. Song can transcend time. It can transcend space. Their shira called forth visions of the coming conquest of the Promised Land, and even the building of a Holy Temple in the far distant prophetic future, reaching its crescendo as it envisioned the perfect Messianic society when Hashem shall reign forever.
Shira is timeless. It reflects all that was, is and will be.
Certainly, recalling such a moment of transcendence is worthy of blessing. So why is it that, in recalling the miracle of our redemption, we do not offer a bracha? Why don’t we open the Haggadah with a blessing al mitzvas sippur yetzias mitzrayim? The Maharal explains that retelling the story of the Exodus is a mitzvah of the heart, and berachot are reserved for mitzvos of doing – of action or speech.
What is a bracha if not a motivator to do something – to eat the matzoh, to lay tefillin, to recite Kiddush? But mitzvos of the heart are natural and organic; they happen naturally. They flow from deep within us. This is, I believe, the reason that unlike other times when we recite a bracha before reciting Hallel, on Pesach night at the Seder there is no bracha before Hallel. Why? Because after reliving the miracles of the Seder night, the miracles that happen anew to us, we need no prompting of a bracha to recite Hallel! Our praise is natural and organic, arising from our hearts unbidden. Our gratitude and joy is spontaneous and heartfelt, just as it is when we hear of a baby’s birth, or that someone has become engaged. There is no thought process. “Mazal tov!” springs from our hearts and through our lips as naturally as breathing.
So too on Seder night. There is no need for a bracha. Our hearts are filled to bursting. Az – then – Bang! Like the perfect downbeat of a drum, we are catapulted into song. The shira bursts forth, having sprung from our hearts.
No words could fully capture the emotion of the shira. Shira is so much more than words. Shira is indescribable happiness, wonder and gratitude, springing into an existence beyond words.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z”l, captures the essential quality of shira when he writes, “Judaism is a religion of words, and yet whenever the language of Judaism aspires to the spiritual it breaks into song, as if the words themselves sought escape from the gravitational pull of finite meanings. There is something about melody that intimates a reality beyond our grasp… Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul… Music is the map of the Jewish spirit, and each spiritual experience has its own distinctive melodic tonality.”
Az yashir is the most fundamental expression of human experience and Jewish spirit. It is through shira that we open the door to meaningful existence. Chazal declare, “From the inception of the world’s creation until Israel stood at the sea, we do not find anyone who has uttered shira to G-d but Israel. He created Adam and he did not utter shira ….”
Wait, what? Can it really be so that no creature truly sang until then? Doesn’t the Midrash extol Adam for reciting Lechu neranena? Likewise, when Adam repented for his sin, the Midrash tells us that he sang Mizmor shir leyom HaShabbat. Why do Chazal state that until the parting of the sea no shira was ever truly uttered?
Because of the simple recognition that there is song – and then there is song. When we speak of shira we distinguish it from the simple melodies and ditties that form the soundtrack of our lives, the ads for toothpaste or cars, the slickly-produced songs of love or heartbreak playing on the radio, the anthems that demand a patriotic response. These are gatherings of notes and rests, rhythms and melodies. Some pleasant, some powerful, some less so. But they are not shira. When Chazal say that no creature truly sang until the sea, it is because Chazal speak of genuine shira, shira that spans time and space. When Adam asked forgiveness for his sin, his focus was on the “now,” on his immediate need of forgiveness, not on the scope of his life and experience that had brought him to his sin – or on the future that still lay ahead.
Adam’s “song” did not transcend time.
It was only Israel and only at the sea that such a shira was first sung, only Israel whose song encompassed the struggle of the past with the glory of the present and with the future to come.
To sing a shira is to believe that He Who takes us into galut will also lead us to geula. Kohelet (7:14) describes G-d as having “…made even the one as well as the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.” G-d’s plan was not to make human life an unbroken spell of calamity – or of joy. Both are necessary parts of life and experience; in both we find evidence of His wisdom. In both we find the power of our song.
The Talmud (Megillah 16b) teaches that the sections of the Torah involving shira need to be written in a manner that the script of the line above is written over the empty space of the line below, in a bricklaying pattern. From this we understand that it is not enough that shira transcend time. For shira to be shira, it must also transcend space.
We are, after all, material creatures. We exist in time, but we occupy space.
When we look at the Torah column where the Shira is found, Rashi’s observation is obvious; there is more empty space than words in the Shira – more blank space than letters! A lot of blank space. Blank space in the Torah? Where each pasuk, each letter, each dot is of ultimate value? How can that be?
The answer is that, when we are overcome with joy and ecstasy – genuine simcha – we might search for words to capture our emotions, but we will never succeed. Words actually take away from our ecstasy. They do not add to it.
Shira must be written in a style that communicates that words fall short; that it is the empty space where the words (representative of the “things” we use to fill space) that must be transcended exist.
When we hear the Chassidic nigunim expressing the highest levels of spirituality, we first hear the sacred words of Tehillim, siddur, or Torah upon which they are based. But then, as the words are repeated over and over, reaching ever higher and higher levels of ecstasy, they vanish like smoke in a breeze, transformed into repetitious hai, hai, hai! or oy, oy, oy! A melody repeated, a whirling dance uncontainable by space.
There was a point, we cannot pinpoint exactly when, when the words, even the most exalted and sacred words, became insufficient to express our hearts. At that point, the exalted Chassidim switch into a place beyond words, a place beyond space and time, into genuine shira.
May we all know such a moment of joy, of ecstasy, of holiness. Moments of shira.