Pesukei Dezimrah, the second part of morning prayers, culminates in Az Yashir, appearing in this week’s sedra. How does this narrative song reinforce the emotions of our daily encounter with G-d?
On the surface, it is the archetypal communal Song of Praise. In fact, its example obligates us to sing praises to Hashem for the miracles which have happened to our nation, on holidays, on Rosh Chodesh, etc. Its placement here, at the end of Pesukei Dezimrah, reflects the song’s origin as a neis, according to R’ Shimon Schwab. After all, how could Moshe Rabbenu, weak of voice, make himself heard by all 2,000,000+ Jews? How could all of them recite the same words, together as one, without Divine intervention? The Song of the Sea prefigures many aspects of communal prayer: a fixed text, heartfelt praise and thanksgiving, as well as separation of the sexes in Miriam’s recitation of the song with the women. As such, its miraculous nature sets it apart as the paradigm of communal praise, which places it here.
Looking deeper, we turn to Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev for some insights into the meaning of Az Yashir in our prayers.
The Song is introduced by Vayosha, describing the depth of Israel’s faith. It concludes “…the nation feared God, and believed in God and in Moshe His servant” Having witnessed the Plagues, having experienced the Exodus, how are the miracles of God at the Sea the source of Israel’s faith in, and fear of God?
There are two kinds of yirah, fear. 1) of punishment. Bnei Yisrael had that in abundance. It was the texture of their existence in Egypt, and it easily transferred to God through witnessing the Plagues, particularly Makat Bechorot, which demanded explicit action, the Pesach, to avoid the general punishment.
2) Fear through love. This could only come about through crossing the Sea. The Berdichever gives an analogy: suppose you’re drowning. Suddenly, a hand comes down from the side of a boat, and hauls you up. But the sea is high, and he can’t hoist you in. You feel love for your savior, because he saved you, while feeling fear that his grip may loosen, and you will be lost. Your existence completely depends on your savior.
So too here: the Jews walked through the Sea, which “hung above them as a wall, to their right and left.” At any moment, the water could have come crashing down and drowned them. Their entire existence depended on God, who saved them by means of a miracle, a miracle that could give way at any moment. This experience gave them fear from love, fear based on knowing that our entire existence depends on God. Thus, when we say today Ozi vezimras Kah, through my effort (oz) in fearing God, He empowers us to have a proper love (zimrah) for Himself. Re-experiencing fear from love, enables God to help us integrate both.
Alternatively, we face a paradox in Ozi vezimras Kah – how is it my strength, when everything comes from Hashem? The Mezritcher Maggid tells a parable – just as a father tries to get his son to learn, even though much of the impetus comes from the father, he is proud of his son’s effort. So too here, even though all strength comes from God, vayhi li liyeshuah, God will bring His salvation in our name, due to our effort in properly fearing Him.
Hashem yimloch l’olam va’ed: why start with God’s name, when David says Yimloch H’ l’olam? Just as we say, when bringing a sin-offering, chatat H’, since had we said it the other way around, one could die between the words and then be guilty of saying God’s name in vain, here we were sinless, we had thrown off our contamination and were free men. Only later, when we sinned at the Eigel, did we regain that problem. We yearn for that sinless state.
We add some extra verses after the actual Shir. The first alludes to the difference between Israel and the nations. God is moshel bagoyim – ruling from strength, without consent. But ki laH’ hameluchah is for us, as we consciously accept Him, crown Him daily in the kedushah, as we said at the Sea, umalchuto beratzon kiblu aleihem. In the future, when saviors ascend Mt. Zion, then the nations will recognize and consent to His kingship, and He will finally be acnkowledged King over all the earth.
Az Yashir fittingly concludes the Verses of Praise/Love. It brings us to re-enact the pinnacle of fear and love of God, leads us towards the ideal sinless state, points us towards the future Redemption when God will be crowned King over all the earth, and leads directly into the daily Coronation of the Holy One, blessed be He, in the first bracha before the Shema.