God vs The Multiverse

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 3: Svara)

We think that the solution to the two main problems discussed in the previous post can only be answered if we expand our understating of the function and purpose of אז ישיר, the song by the sea.  Our questions were based on the premise that אז ישיר was merely a joyous song in response to our miraculous salvation with the drowning of the Egyptian army.  This would seem to be a one time expression of praise, which is entirely different than the permanent annual mitzva of reading the story of the מגילה.

It would seem from the gemara's comparison that there were two separate functions of the song of אז ישיר.  One function was the emotive response of singing praise, but the second aspect was the formulation of a song as a vehicle of publicizing the miracle that God performed in His victorious destruction of the Egyptian army (ה' אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה' שְׁמוֹ).

In ancient times, before widespread recording of written history, the great deeds of kings and their epic battles were recorded in poetic verse and maintained through oral tradition.  The ancient poets were very skilled in using specific formulations that helped transmit oral records of these events.  One of the main tools available to the ancient poet was song.

The Redak interprets Tehillim 40:4 (וַיִּתֵּן בְּפִי, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ תְּהִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ - יִרְאוּ רַבִּים וְיִירָאוּ וְיִבְטְחוּ בַּיהוָה) as saying that a person is obligated to formulate a new song and praise on every miracle that is done for him, through which many people will awed and confident in Hashem.

(As a side point - the theory of oral-formulaic composition, as first proposed by Milman Parry in the 1920's, also helps explain how this information could be faithfully transmitted exclusively through oral means over many generations.  This theory is particularly useful in explaining the peculiar nature of certain phrases in epic poetry, as mnemonic aids that ensured the fidelity of oral transmission across generations.)

In this framework, it makes sense to view אז ישיר as a song that was designed by Moshe to be a vehicle of oral transmission, in order to accurately depict the miraculous events that were witnessed by the sea.  This is born out by the very first verse in the song:
אָז יָשִׁיר משֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַה' וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra explain this phrase of "וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר", as meaning that the song should be recited by all future generations.  The Chizkuni actually interprets this phrase to be the source for saying אז ישיר every day (which is a custom that is brought down by the Rambam and is widespread today).  Additionally, Chazal instituted the annual obligation for the entire congregation to publicly read אז ישיר on the seventh day of Passover, which is the date when the miracle occurred.  (See Rashi to Shemos 14:5וליל שביעי ירדו לים, בשחרית אמרו שירה, והוא יום שביעי של פסח, לכן אנו קורין השירה ביום השביעי)

Based upon this idea, we can explain the first part of the gemara which draws a comparison between  the song of אז ישיר and reading the מגילה.  Both אז ישיר and the מגילה are essentially vehicles of publicizing a miracle, and both were meant to be recited by all future generations in order to maintain the memory of their respective miracles. If when we were miraculously redeemed from slavery, Moshe made sure to formulate a song that would publicize this epic event to the world's future generations, surely when we were miraculously saved from certain death, we are certainly obligated to formulate and institute a way of publicizing the salvation!

The next question of the gemara naturally follows:  The song of אז ישיר was more than just a means to publicize the miracle - it was also a song of praise.  It would seem that due to the political climate, the מגילה itself could not be formulated as an explicit song of praise to God.  Rather, it had to be written as letter to the kingdom of אחשורוש, in which the miracle is only implicit.  However, based upon the comparison between  אז ישיר and מגילה, why didn't Chazal also set up an additional obligation of reciting הלל (a song of praise) alongside the reading of the מגילה.  In the next two posts, we will address the gemara's answers to this question.

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