Poetry (from the ancient Greek word “to create”) is an art of rhythmical composition that through meaning, sound, and rhythmic language evokes pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts. Poetry uses forms and conventions to suggest differing interpretations, or to evoke emotive responses…
Assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia and rhythm to achieve musical effects
Ambiguity, symbolism, irony to create multiple interpretations
Metaphor and simile to create a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived.
Shadal notes that the use of unusual and unused words, particularly those of ancient and remote origin, “for their lack of currency of wear and tear, adds to their tonic effect and charming appeal”.
Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin ("the Netziv," 1816-1893), dean of the eminent Volozhin yeshiva and author of Ha'amek Davar (A Matter Profound) thinks that the Torah possesses "both the nature and singularity of poetry[shira], which is to speak in lyrical language". Because the essential quality of poetry is its compressed nature and its allusiveness--a kind of symbolic language -- the so-called hidden meaning of the Biblical text is its real meaning!
Rabbi Leibtag on the Five Songs in Tanach
The following table summarizes these five songs and the important period that each one concludes:
Source Name Sung after…
Shmot 15:1 19 Shirat Ha'Yam Exodus
Devarim 32:1 43 Shirat Ha’azinu 40 years in the desert
Yehoshua 12:1 24 Shirat Yehoshua defeat of the 31 kings
Shoftim 5:1 31 Shirat Devorah complete conquest of north
Shm.II 22:1 51 Shirat David establishing the Monarchy
Shirat Ha'azinu and Yehoshua exhibit the pattern of two columns with an empty space down the middle:
Shirat Ha’Yam, Devorah, and David exhibit a brickwork-like pattern:
Rabbi Leibtag’s hypothesis is that songs following the first pattern (Shirat Ha'azinu and Yehoshua) mark the end of historical periods that fell short of their original expectations. The songs following the second brickwork-like pattern were used when expectations were fully realized:
• Ha'azinu -The people of the Exodus were destined to reach the Holy Land. But they and their offspring continuously angered God. What should have been an ideal situation --conquering the promised Land with Moshe as their leader--became a more realistic one with a pessimistic forecast that the Israelites would sin after entering the land. It seemed inevitable that the nation will fail in its Divine mission of establishing God’s model nation in the Land of Israel. Such a tragic conclusion necessitated the use of the first pattern for Ha’azinu.
• Yehoshua’s conquest was far from complete because only the Tribes of Yehudah and Yosef successfully conquered their lands. But the remaining ten tribes had not captured their respective areas. His song, therefore, is written utilizing the first pattern.
• The Song of the Sea marks not only the completion of the Exodus, but also our total independence from Egypt.
• During the time of Devorah, Emek Yizrael (the Jezreel Valley), which sat on the major trade route from Egypt to Mesopotamia, was finally conquered through the joint effort of the surrounding tribes. Barak and Devorah defeated Israel's enemies in the north, thereby geographically uniting the twelve tribes. Therefore, Devorah’s Song utilizes the second pattern
• Emek Yizrael, having been lost during the time of Judges, came back under control during King David’s time. David expanded his sphere of occupation to the north, east, and south, thus creating a stable monarchy and secure borders. He thanks God for His assistance in achieving the most complete conquest of Eretz Canaan in David’s Song.
Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz describes the Song as “notable for the poetic fire, vivid imagery and quick movement [that] gives remarkable expression to the mingled horror, triumph and gratitude” that the Israelites experienced.
Ibn Ezra thinks that this victory ode composed and led by Moshe on behalf of the nation inspired the people to raise their voices and sing “as one person”. Moshe would sing all the stanzas and the people would respond “I will sing to the Lord, Though He is gloriously glorified; Horse and its rider He hurled into the sea”.
According to Rav Dovid Hoffman, the hymn falls into two parts. The first part is a song of triumph, describing and praising God for being a hero warrior who defeats his enemy. The second part glorifies God as the One who bestows his country on His people. Others think the Song consists of three sections…
The first part, exalting God’s saving power…
Followed by a detailed description of the miracle itself…
Concluding with expectations about the future
The imagery of turbulent, chaotic waters from which emerged the newly-created Nation of Israel is reminiscent of the original creation story when God crafted a new world order out of primeval chaos. Rabbi David Fohrman cites specific words and themes that appear here and in the creation saga…
o Here “…and God caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind”; a howling wind amidst the chaos preceded the creation.
o In both there is a separation of the waters: In creation, the rakeya horizontally separated the higher from the lower waters; here the waters of the sea part vertically and “the waters were a wall to them [the Israelites] on their right hand and on their left”.
o In creation, the waters on earth were gathered to “let the dry land appear”. Here the text describes how the Israelites “went into the midst of the sea on dry land”.
Professor Everett Fox notes that the vocabulary of the poem is extremely concentrated. Clusters of key words express major ideas…
Military victory is communicated in words like flung, hurled, plunged, smashed, consumed, and shattered
Divine leadership is described by led, guided, and brought
Graphic representation of nations’ fear of God is found in shuddered, seized with writhing, melted away, terrified and grew dumb.
Words like stone and lead convey how heavy the Egyptians fell.
Miriam Leads the Women in Chanting and Dancing
Immediately after the reporting of the singing of the song of the sea led by Moshe, Miriam gathers the women in joyful singing, musical accompaniment and dancing to praise God: “and Miriam the prophetess the sister of Aharon took a timbrel [hand drum] in her hand…” She is one of the few women in Tanach referred to as prophetess (the others being Devorah, Hulda and Noadiah).
Miriam is associated with water. Her name includes the word for sea, yam. She was the one who stood guard of her baby brother Moshe as he floated in the banks of the Nile. Here she leads on the other side of the Sea of Reeds. And during the Israelites desert wandering it was in her merit the people had a source of water (which ceased when she died).
The word prophet/prophetess in Hebrew is from a root word that means “lips”, indicating that they are charged with the responsibility to verbalize and transmit the Word of God. Perhaps Miriam had a unique ability to find the right words to calm the agitated listener, like the calming effect from watching a tranquil body of water. Watching the unnatural spectacle of a Sea splitting and then come cascading down and drowning the Egyptians combined with their anguished death cries may have traumatized the women of Israel. Because it was Miriam’s presence and leadership in mobilizing the women into joining the joyous national celebration that dispelled some of their gloom and brought them tranquility, she is identified here as a prophetess.
Referring to Miriam as the sister of Aharon and not mentioning that she was also the sister of Moshe highlights this personality trait that she shared with him. Aharon was “rodeph shalom v’ohav shalom” --finding the right words to tell each quarreling party to bring about reconciliation. So, too, Miriam had the unique ability to utter the right words to help individuals deal with their inner struggles.
Rabbi Gunther Plaut notes that dancing was a normal aspect of worship in ancient Israel and in other cultures for both women and men (e.g., King David’s joyful dancing when the Ark of the Covenant was brought up to Yerushalayim). There were…
o Dances to express communal joy
o Victory dances
o Dances to gratefully celebrate the harvest
o Wooing and wedding dances
Koheleth views joyful dancing as the opposite of mourning: “there is a time to mourn and a time to dance”. The spontaneous response of the women at the Reed Sea reflected their religious joy.
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s reading of this incident, these women did not delegate their responsibility. Rather, each woman made a tambourine for herself. The Rebbe concludes that from this we can learn that it is “every single person’s obligation to inspire his or herself and all of the people that he or she comes into contact with”.