Az Yashir: An Introduction
When we were being chased by the Egyptians at the Yam Suf and we were miraculously saved, the mal’achim wanted to sing praise to Hashem. However, Hashem did not allow them to. “My handiwork is drowning and you wish to sing a song of praise?” (Gemara, Megillah 10b). Conversely, when we eventually saw the Egyptians washed up on the shores of the Yam Suf, Moshe and the entire nation called out in shirah, the song of praise we know as “Az Yashir.” Why were we permitted to sing praise when themal’achim were not? What happened to the fact that Hashem’s handiwork had drowned?
The well-known answer is that the mal’achim had no direct benefit from K’rias Yam Suf. Therefore, it was inappropriate for them to sing when Hashem’s creations were drowning. We, on the other hand, were saved from destruction and therefore benefited greatly. Therefore, we were not only permitted to sing praises to Hashem, but we were in fact obligated to do so.
There is another beautiful answer, which will serve as our introduction to Az Yashir. It is based on Reb Yonah Weinrib’s writing in his beautifully artistic work on Hallel, which is sourced from Mishnas Rav Aharon on Pesach, though much has been added.
The shirah, the song of praise, has the power to infuse man with a greater internalization of emunah. We can read about, hear, and even see spectacular wonders and miracles; and though we are inspired at the moment, the effect can and will evaporate in a short period of time, unless we take action to internalize deeply what we have witnessed, read, or heard. And, therefore, Hashem wants us to sing shirah at that moment so that we grow from the experience, as opposed to angels who do not grow, notwithstanding the fact that he is saddened because his handiwork is drowning.
There is a story in one of Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s books about a man who was crying very emotionally at the Kosel. Two individuals observing the man decided that, after he was finished, they would approach him and offer their assistance both financially and medically, since one had considerable financial resources and the other was heavily involved in the chesed of providing medical assistance in Eretz Yisrael. When the man finished, they approached him and asked him what was troubling him so much that brought him to such tearful and heartfelt emotion, and they made their offer to help. The man responded that all was well and he did not need any help. Then why were you crying with such emotion? The man responded, I just married off my last child of my large family and I am so grateful to Hashem that I couldn’t control myself as I thanked Him profusely. Those were tears of joy.
We often find the words l’hodos and l’hallel together in that order. Allow us to present very briefly a progression leading to an outburst of emotion of praise to Hashem. The first step is recognition. We must become more aware and recognize the great loving-kindness that Hashem gifts to us. That leads to our verbal expression of thanks to Hashem as step two. These two steps are “l’hodos,” which is hakaras ha’tov. The third step is to contemplate Hashem’s love for us and the kindness that Hashem has granted to us until we reach the point where the emotion within us bursts out in song of praise. That is l’hallel and zimrah. That level of shirah and all that led to it has the ability to have a dramatic impact on us. It builds within our neshamos a more profound appreciation of the greatness of Hashem, and brings forth wellsprings of emunah that reside deep within us.
The growth in emunah and closeness to and love for Hashem that can be gained from shirah is immeasurable.
We now understand the answer to our initial question. It is entirely appropriate for us to recite shirah because we are elevating ourselves significantly through singing shirah, whereas the mal’achim could not sing the shirah because they would not benefit. They are stagnant in their level and do not grow as we do.
Perhaps we now have a better understanding of why Chazal say, “One who sings shirah in this world will merit to sing it in the next world” (Sanhedrin 91b). And perhaps this is why the Chofetz Chaim, based on a midrash, writes that one who says the shirah with simchah merits to have his aveiros forgiven (Mishnah B’rurah, siman 51 s”k 17). May we merit to reach the level of saying the shirah with heart, emotion, and simchah, and merit to deepen our emunah and connection with Hashem, have our aveiros forgiven, and merit to sing Hashem’s praises in the next world.