This Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, as our parasha contains the 21-verse song of exaltation sung by our forebears in response to the miracle of Kriyat Yam Suf: “And the waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen, the entire force of Pharaoh coming after them into the sea; not even one of them survived. But the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the water was to them like a wall from their right and from their left. Az Yashir — Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the L-rd, and they spoke, saying, ‘I will sing to the L-rd, for very exalted is He; a horse and its rider He cast into the sea’.”
Fascinatingly, our ancestors did not sing a single verse of praise following Yetziat Mitzrayim. This notable difference led my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal, the Rav, to ask: “Strangely at the time that the Jews left Egypt, neither Moses nor the people sang hymns of praise for the amazing miracle they had experienced. Only seven days later, after the splitting of the Red Sea, did Moses and the people sing Az Yashir. Why did Israel wait a week to give thanks?”
According to the Rav, the answer to this question is to be found in the very different nature of these two nissim. Yetziat Mitzrayim was performed solely by Hashem and banned our people’s participation: “And you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning. The L-rd will pass to smite the Egyptians.” (12:22-23)
This idea is famously elaborated upon in Midrash Sifrei, Ki Tavo and emphasized in the Haggadah: “I [Hashem] and not an angel, I and not a seraph, it is only Me and no other.” The Rav labels such a miracle, wherein Hashem acts exclusively on His own, a “yeshuah” (an act of deliverance) and observes: “The paradigmatic historical event signifying yeshuah was the Exodus from Egypt. No one — not an angel, not man — abetted G-d on the wondrous ‘night of watching’.” Our role on this amazing evening was severely circumscribed; we remained in our homes, ate the Korban Pesach and passively watched the unfolding of this miracle and the fulfillment of the Holy One’s promise.
The miracle of Kriyat Yam Suf stands in stark contradistinction to Yetziat Mitzrayim. Now, the entire Jewish people actively worked to save themselves from Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen, and the Almighty joined them in achieving this great goal.
The Rav conceptualizes this type of nes as “ezrah” (help from the Master of the Universe). As such, Kriyat Yam Suf was a time when “the Creator offered the Israelites a role in their own redemption. He required a leap of faith: a jump into the water prior to the parting of the sea [Sotah 36-37a]. The shock of cold water, the fear of drowning thus became Israel’s minute ‘contribution’ to the miracle. At that moment they became partners with G-d, and as a result Moses and the people full-throatedly sang the majestic Az Yashir in gratitude.”
Rav Soloveitchik notes that, on the surface, “one would assume that Hashem should be thanked more for yeshuah [herein, Yetziat Mitzrayim] than for ezrah [herein, Kriyat Yam Sum],” since in the former He, and He alone, brought about the nes. Scaffolding on this line of thinking, we should have had our ‘Az Yashir moment’ when we left Egypt, rather than at the Yam Suf! Nothing, however, could be further from the truth:
“We nonetheless arrive at the opposite conclusion: The more man participates in the effort needed [to achieve the Torah-sanctioned goal], the more he must thank the Creator. Our gratitude is increased in the case of ezrah [Kriyat Yam Suf], because we must bless G-d for the privilege of allowing us to be His partner.”
In sum, when we are privileged to join the Master of the Universe as His partners in bringing forth a nes, we have the greatest obligation to praise and extol Him. This, then, is why we sang Az Yashir at Kriyat Yam Suf, rather than something similar-in-kind following Yetziat Mitzrayim.
May it be Hashem’s will and our fervent desire to ever be His partners, as we continue on the grand march of Jewish history toward the time of the Mashiach and our ultimate redemption. V’chane yihi ratzon.