The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
Rashi quotes Onkelos’s explanation of the verse “Ashira L’Hashem Ki Gaoh Gaah,” (Exodus 15:1) as “I will sing to G-d because (or since) he is above all”. Rashi adds another interpretation of this verse, that in contradistinction to a flawed, limited, and highly undeserving mortal king, who is lionized by his subjects, G-d truly deserves infinite praise. However human frailty prevents us from offering it.
Rashi’s second interpretation implies that Moses emphasized that, despite all the openly visible and hidden miracles G-d performed for them, the Jewish people offered limited praise to G-d because they lacked the ability to adequately express their admiration and gratitude to Him. Rashi interprets the word “Ki” as “even though,” or “despite” (similar to the use of “Ki Karov Hu,” specifying that G-d did not lead the Jewish people through the land of the Philistines even though it was closer). Our verse is saying, “I will sing to G-d, even though He is exalted above all, and I can’t possibly express all His praises adequately. The Gemara (Megillah 25a, Berachot 33b) says, based on the verse “To You (G-d) silence is praise,” man is enjoined from composing or offering his own praise to G-d. Had the Rabbis of the Great Assembly not incorporated the words, “Ha’kel Hagadol Hagibor V’hanora” into our daily supplication, we would not have permission to utter even those words of praise to G-d. Their license to incorporate that phrase derived from Moses’ recorded use of it to praise G-d (Deuteronomy 10:17). If human limitations restrict our ability to offer verbal praise to G-d, what is the fundamental source of permission (Matir) for man to pray? Indeed, what gave Moses the permission to offer the very phrase “Ha’kel Hagadol Hagibor V’hanora” that we quote in our supplication?
There are several sources for the Matir of Shira, each derived from Shirat Hayam, sung by Moses and the people. The first explanation is based on Maimonides (see Hilchot Berachot 1:3.). Man has an instinctive need to give thanks and recognition to someone who performs an act of kindness on his behalf. When man seeks to praise G-d for the favors He performs for him, his natural urge is transformed into praising G-d for all the acts of kindness He performs for man on a continuous basis. However, due to man’s limitations, the best he can do is offer partial praise of G-d where full and complete praise is required. At that moment, on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, after seeing their Egyptian tormentors lying dead on the shore and realizing that they would no longer be a threat to them, Moses and the Jewish people were overwhelmed with the need to sing praise to G-d in recognition of the many miracles and acts of kindness He performed for them. This is similar to how Joseph was unable to control his emotions when he finally revealed himself to his brothers. This overwhelming need to thank G-d is also the Matir for Shira and regular prayer. Man is distinguished from the animal kingdom by both his ability and need to pray. Even though he recognizes that his limitations render his prayers inadequate (“Ki Gaoh Gaah”), he must instinctively offer them anyway (“Azi Vzimarat Kah”).
The second suggestion for the Matir for Shira is based on how Moses knew it was permissible to praise G-d at the Sea of Reeds. Shirat Hayam required a precedent and Moses relied on a tradition dating back to our patriarch, Abraham, teaching us that the Jewish nation prays to G-d in times of crisis and praises Him in times of joy. The Gemara (Berachot 26b) says that our patriarchs established the order of our daily prayers. The intention of the Gemara is not merely to present a history lesson, rather, it is to show us that when the patriarchs established the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers, they provided the precedent for us to pray accordingly. Indeed, Moses emphasized his reliance on the precedent of the patriarchs in the phrase “Elokay Avi V’aromimenhu,” meaning, “as my fore-fathers before me praised G-d, so shall I.”
Rambam (Hilchot Tefilah 9:7, Moreh Nevuchim 1:59) provides a third possibility as to the Matir for Shira. The Gemara (Megila 25a) says, praise for G-d may be voiced only by one capable of reciting all His praises, “Mi Y’mallel Gvurot Hashem Yashmia Kol Thilato” (Psalms 106:2). This of course is impossible for mortals, yet the prophets often included additional praises of G-d in the revelations and prophecies they transmitted to the people. These revelations were intended to teach us G-d’s ways so that we may emulate them. Permission to praise G-d is granted to us because that very praise inherently describes Midot Hashem, G-d’s characteristics, and provides us with the blueprint of how to act in order to emulate G-d’s ways. The Gemara (Shabbat 133b) derives the obligation to emulate G-d’s ways from the verse “Zeh Kayli V’anvayhu,” meaning, “This is My G-d and I will glorify Him.” That verse paraphrases the obligation of Vhalachta Bdrachav. The word “V’anvayhu” is an acronym for Ani V’hu (I and He). As G-d performs acts of kindness, so should I. When we recite praise to G-d, we reiterate and reinforce our obligation to emulate the ways of G-d are praising Him for, just as Moses and the Jewish people did generations ago at the Sea of Reeds. The Matir for Shira is that the praise itself defines how to fulfill the Mitzvah of V’Halachta Bdrachav.