The story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea is a well known one. We all know about how Hashem split the sea to let them across, before allowing it to surge over the pursuing Egyptians, drowning them as soon as the Chosen People had reached dry land. It’s no secret how Miriam and the women prepared instruments for this momentous occasion, reflecting their faith in G-d and the redemption. And most of us have heard the famous story from Sanhedrin, in which the angels wished to celebrate the Egyptian’s deaths, and Hashem rebuked them, asking how they could sing while his creations drowned in the sea. But there’s an episode in this week’s Parsha- that of the song which Moshe Rabbenu and the Israelites sang- which contains a little known treasure trove of meaning and wisdom.
To understand the meaning of this song and the way in which it was sung, we need to understand the three interpretations regarding it. The text merely states, “Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song to G‑d, and they spoke, saying…”- not telling us how they sang it. Rabbi Akiva states that after Moshe Rabbenu sang each line, the Israelites repeated “I will sing to Hashem”, continually repeating the same line as Moshe made his way through the song. Meanwhile, Rabbi Eliezer thinks that they repeated each line after Moshe, rather than saying the same verse again and again, and finally Rabbi Nechemiah believed that Moshe just sang the opening words to the song, after which, they all sang it on their own.
But what exactly does all this mean? What do these three opinions tell us?
As ever, the Lubavitcher Rebbe provides us with answers. These three different styles represent three types of leadership- beginning with a slightly flawed kind of leadership, and working up to the most ideal sort. The Rebbe tells us, “Rabbi Akiva describes an ideal in which a people completely abnegate their individuality to the collective identity embodied by the leader. Moshe alone sang the nation’s gratitude to G‑d…. The people had nothing further to say as individuals. At first glance, this seems the ultimate in unity: hundreds of thousands of hearts and minds yielding to a single program and vision. Rabbi Eliezer, however, argues that this is but a superficial unity… When people set aside their own thoughts and feelings to accept what is dictated to them by a higher authority, they are united only in word and deed; their inner selves remain different and distinct.”
So what does the Rebbe say about Rabbi Eliezer? How is his ideal of leadership superior? Rabbi Elizer, he tells us, “interprets the Torah’s description of Israel’s song to say that they did not merely affirm Moshe’s song with a refrain, but repeated his words themselves. Each individual Jew internalised Moshe’s words, so that they became the expression of his own understanding and feelings. The very same words assumed hundreds of thousands of nuances of meaning, as they were absorbed by each of the minds, and articulated by each of the mouths, of the people of Israel”. And yet this approach, too, has problems. “If Israel repeated these verses after Moses, this would imply that their song did not stem from the very deepest part of themselves”.
So why is Rabbi Nechamia’s approach ideal- and what does it tell us about Moshe’s leadership? The Rebbe explains, “If the people were truly one with Moses and his articulation of the quintessence of Israel, why would they need to hear their song from his lips before they could sing it themselves? It was enough, says Rabbi Nechemiah, that Moses started them off with the first words of the song, so as to stimulate their deepest experience of the miracle, with the result that each of them sang the entire song on their own”. This reminds us that Moshe was a leader, not a ruler. He wasn’t the sort of person who sat back and allowed his people to do all the work; he showed them the way, and illuminated the path for them, so that they could independently serve G-d.
Just as the highest form of tzedakah is enabling someone to help themself, rather than making them dependent on a beneficiary, the best form of leadership is that which allows people to utilise their own free will, and talents, to serve their true leader- Hashem. When Moshe began singing the song, and encouraged the people of Israel to praise G-d by themselves, he was demonstrating- as he does in many other parts of the Torah- his remarkable leadership skills; the same skills which, with Hashem’s help, led the people out of Mitzrayim.