Monday, February 2, 2009

Beshalach, Shemos 17:8. Az Yashir and Amaleik

The Kli Yakar here cites the Mechilta as saying that Amaleik is allegorized to the fly. (The Baal Haturim here points out that the first letters of “zikoron basefer vesim be’oznei” are ‘zevuv.’) The Kli Yakar explains that the metaphoric use of “fly” alludes to an insect that does not have the ability to pierce the skin. It is only when the skin is broken that the fly can feed and generate all sorts of problems. “Hazevuv lahut achar hamakkoh, ” a fly is drawn to wounds. A fly cannot instigate a problem; it can only exploit and aggravate a problem. When a fly lands on you and walks around, the fly is thinking “Is death here yet?”

Similarly, Amalek cannot do anything when the spiritual integument of Klal Yisroel is intact. Only when there is a breach in our ruchnius, when the skin is not intact, can Amalek exploit that breach and attack us.

Amaleik and Safeik are each gematria 240. Amalek has been described as “korcho baderech,” which some interpret to mean a philosophy of mikreh- randomness and coincidence, the philosophy that denies divine justice and providence. When our faith is weak, when we doubt the existence of Hashgachas Hashem, Amaleik is empowered to exploit that breach. As Rashi says, it was only after we began to wonder “Hayeish Hashem bekirbeinu,” did Amaleik attack. They were attracted to the stench of spiritual decay.

Now let us move from the malodor of sin and faithlessness to the opposite. The Gemara (Shabbos 89a) says that the Malach Hamavves taught Moshe Rabeinu that Ketores has the power to stop a mageifah, to halt the Malach Hamaves. Additionally, Rashi says that the Angel of Amalek, the Sar of Amalek, is the Malach Hama'ves. The sefer Nifla’os Mi’torasecha by R’ Mordechai Aran notes that the word Amalek only appears twice in all of Tanach as a rosh teivos or a sof teivos of four consecutive words: once in order, once out of order.  Shemuel I 2:28 על מזבחי להקטיר קטורת “Al Mizbechi Le’haktir Ketores”, and Bamidbar 16:6 where the Adas Korach was instructed זאת עשו קחו לכם מחתות  “zos Ahsu Kechu Lachem Machtos”. Both of these references involve the bringing of ketores. Imagine that! In all of Tanach, only these two phrases have consecutive words beginning or ending with the letters AMLK, and both explicitly refer to the Ketores! Both phrases discuss the sweet smell of ketores, and both contain singular references to the Amalek, to the rot of death.  The Torah locks together the polar opposites; Good and Evil, Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem; the two primal antagonists in the eternal play of existence.

The antidote to the death-power of Amalek is the sweet smell of the ketores, which symbolizes the life-power of strong emunah and mitzvos done with joy.  As the Prophet Nechemiah told the Jewish people (Nechemiah 8:10)
  ויאמר נחמיה הוא התרשתא ועזרא הכהן הספר והלוים המבינים את העם לכל העם היום קדש הוא לה' אלקיכם אל תתאבלו ואל תבכו  כי בוכים כל העם כשמעם את דברי התורה.   ויאמר להם לכו אכלו משמנים ושתו ממתקים ושלחו מנות לאין נכון לו כי קדוש היום לאדנינו ואל תעצבו כי חדות ה' היא מעזכם.

This parshah contains Oz Yoshir, the eponym of Shabbas Shira. Shira corresponds to ketores, as we find (Tehillim 141:2) “Tikon shirasi ketores lefanecha.” This is reflected in the placement of the amud of the chazon in shul in a position that parallels the mizbeyach hazahav of the Beis Hamikdosh, which was used for burning ketores. Az Yashir is preceeded by "Va'ya'aminu BaHashem." When the Torah begins the shira, it uses the words ‘Az Yashir,’ not 'Az Shar.' Rashi explains (briefly, because it’s a dikduk Rashi) that Yashir is lashon assid, and Chazal darshan accordingly, but the pashut pshat is that sometimes lashon assid is used to say that “he was moved to...”, so the passuk means “Then, having experienced the miracle, Moshe and the Bnei Yisroel were inspired to sing, and they said...” The question is , why the three step introduction? 1; experienced miracle, 2. their hearts were moved to sing, and 3. they sang (or, Revelation, Exultation, Exaltation.) Why not just say that in response to the miracle, they sang? What does the extra step— “their hearts were moved to sing”— add? The answer is that shira is not just singing, it is song that comes from the heart. Mere chazanus is empty. Shira means song that comes from inspiration, from the heart, from the elevation generated by the awareness of Hashem’s loving presence.

So we see in this parsha, the Torah is really showing us a dichotomy, a contrast, a spectrum defined by, on the one hand, Shira, and on the other, Amalek. When Bnei Yisrael came to “Vaya’aminu Bashem uvemoshe avdo,” then “Oz Yoshir.” When Bnei Yisroel wondered “Hayeish Hashem bekirbeinu im oyin,” then “Vayavo Amalek.” Emunah brings shirah, which is like the ketores. Safeik brings Amalek.

The presence of Az Yashir and Amalek in this parsha is not coincidental. Just as we saw that in all of Tanach, only two pesukim contain the letters of Amalek, and both discuss the Ketores, here, too, the parsha that introduces Amalek precedes that story with Az Yashir, the antidote to Amalek. Once again, Ketores and Amalek face one another.

It was pointed out to me that this can be viewed as “Creating Your Own Reality.” In other words, when they doubted Hashem’s hashgocho and didn’t feel confident that they were safe, they were attacked; when they were confident that Hashem was protecting them, they were protected. This is like the Brisker story of “Ein Ohd Milvado” and R’ Chaninah ben Dosah. See also R Chaim Shmuelevitz in Sichos Mussor #35 and 64, who says that our beliefs create all of our realities, even to the extent that our beliefs contribute to the power of objects to cause us harm, as he brings from R Ami’s story of the Chuldoh and the Bohr in Taanis 8a.

Briefly: Amaleik=Zevuv. Zevuv is attracted to the smell of physical decay that comes from the wounds which allow it to feed and spawn and proliferate. Amaleik is empowered by and attracted to the metaphysical odor of spiritual decay--sin and failure of faith. The polar opposite of Amaleik/Zevuv is the fragrant Ketores. Ketores=Shir. Therefore, Shir is the opposite of Amalek. Shir expresses the exultation of faith and good works. Parshas Beshalach, which contains both Az Yashir and the Parsha of Amaleik, spans the two defining extremes of spiritual life: the state of Emunah and Shir, and the state of Safeik and Amaleik.

My son, in a drasha at his shul, expanded this with an insight that gives this genuine relevance to our lives. What follows is his.

We find that Parshas Ha'azinu contains many strongly worded criticisms of Klal Yisrael and warnings of dangerous and difficult times. Why, then, is it called a Shirah? Is the prophecy of Yirmiahu known as a Shira? Certainly not. So in what sense is Ha'azinu a Shirah? The answer is that Haazinu is a global perspective. It is only for us, who are handicapped by our imperfect understanding of the present and forgetfulness or unawareness of the past, that suffering is so emotionally painful and confusing. But with the global view of Shechina Medaberes Mitoch Grono shel Moshe, with a perfectly understood panorama of the past, the present, and the future, all things fall into place: U're'isem es achorai, ufanai lo yei'ra'u!" Life is experienced forward, but only understood backward. You cannot comprehend what you see because you simply are unaware of the factors that contributed to it or of the ultimate purpose of what you experience; we occupy a thin slice of dim light between endless expanses of darkness. When you finally are granted understanding, after all is done and the goal is acheived, then you will see that all of life is a Shirah, including the Chelbana. Reb Tzadok Hacohen of Lublin once said (in parshas Korach) that Chelbana comprises the letter Ches, which stands for Choshech, darkness, and the rest of the word is Levana, white, or light. Chelbana, the element of ketores that is foul smelling, symbolizes our narrow awareness-- light bound into darkness. But in the ketores, the Chelbana itself combines with all the other ingredients to create a supernally sweet fragrance.

The Beis Halevi in this week's parsha notes the Medrash that Moshe Rabbeinu said "with the word 'Az' I sinned, when I said "u'mei'az basi el Pharaoh," and with the word Az I now say Shira-- Az yashir Moshe. The Beis Halevi explains that now that Moshe saw the denoument of Yetzias Mitzrayim, he realized that not only should he say Shira on the Geula, but that he ought to say Shira on the suffering of the Jews in Mitzrayim.

It is Amalek, or the Amalek within us, that sees the suffering of innocents, the brutishness and indifference of nature, and says "the is no justice in life." They say that all is Mikreh, randomness, a black abyss of meaninglessness.

We, on the other hand, we say Shira. We know that everything happens for a reason, that Hashem loves mankind and that Hashem loves the Jewish people with a chiba ye'seirah, and we know that ultimately we will have a glimmer of understanding of the whole play of history. And that is the perspective that we express in Shira. Just as Moshe said Shira when the story of Mitzrayim reached its end, we say Shira too, in perfect faith in Hashem's justice and love.

What a great pity it is when people who suffer fall into despair or into sullen frustration. They give up, or they take it out on their friends and family, or they simply become emotionally unsupportive and distant. It is a pity because these people themselves will ultimately realize that they missed an opportunity to say Shira. They should have been saying Shira, and saying Shira itself would have lifted their spirits!

Shira does not have to be a song, it doesn't have to have notes or lyrics. Shira is when a person comes home from a hard day, and he knows that his job is on the line, and that he made bad investment decisions, and the first thing he does when he comes home is to make sure his family knows how much he loves them and how grateful he is that he has his family to return to. That is the truest form of Shira. Let's not wait for Biyas Hamashiach to sing Shira. Let us learn that to not say Shira is a Zeicher of Amalek, and we must eradicate Zecher Amalek. Let us re-learn what emuna and bitachon are all about, and we will say Shira every day of our life.

When I posted an earlier version of this two years ago, there were two comments:
One, anonymous, pointed out that Shiras Miriam begins with the Present Tense, implying that Women can percieve the Yad Hashem in miracles more quickly than men. The other, calling himself Furbo, put in a link to a gematriya and Bible Code engine,
Someone else asked for the source of there being ten shiros in Tanach. The sources are Yalkut Shimoni Yehoshua19:2, Mechilat Vayishlach 15:1, and Shir Hashirim Rabba 6:10.)  The Targum in the beginning of Shir Hashirim says that in Tanach you only find nine, and we will sing the tenth when Mashiach comes.

For a discussion about the heightened significance attributed to the sense of smell in Talmudic literature, and some insight into why smell is the most appropriate metaphor, please see

A salute to the Kli Yakar: I believe his Yahrtzeit is around now. In any other generation, he would have been the Gadol Hador in Drush. He, however, had the misfortune of living next door to the Maharal.


  1. I found your d'var torah extremely interesting! Thank you for writing.
    I also ask if you know a source which lists all of the instances of shira in Tanach as I am learning about this with my daughter for her Bas Mitzvah dvar torah (she was born on Shabbos Shira and thus has the middle name "Shira," so we are learning about the concept of shira.)

    Thanks again

  2. Thank you! Happy birthday and Mazal tov to you and your daughter.

    I don’t remember any source that lists the many instances of Shira in Tanach. But you might be able to use the Gemara in Berachos 10a about the five experiences that inspired David Hamelech to say Shirah, and Pesachim 117a, about how, for David Hamelech, sometimes divine revelation inspired Shirah, and sometimes Shira inspired divine revelation. In that Gemara, Shirah refers to "simcha shel mitzvah," the joy that comes from our relationship with Hashem.

  3. Thank you, for this wonderful dvar torah. It is quite obvious that you were affected by the "avira d'ertez yisroel"

  4. Thank you. Knowing that I will get honest reactions here, both positive and negative, is a great motivator for critical self-examination and, inevitably, rewriting. Fortunately or unfortunately, my wife almost always compliments my work.

  5. Thank you for the mekoros, I will check them out. I found out that there are 10 shiros and they are discussed in the midrash at the beginning of Shir HaShirim

  6. Ms. Tova- I have to look at the Medrash. Nice source. If you could send a brief outline of the drasha to my address, I would appreciate it. I'm a little short in the Bas Mitzvah drasha department.

    Thinking about the Gemara in Brachos 10, it seems to me that the things that inspired David Hamelech were, using some license, the following.
    1. The congruence of pure spirituality and the human form;
    2. The perfection of the laws of nature;
    3. The purity of a mother's love;
    4. That evil plants the seeds of its own destruction; and
    5. The time that our souls rejoin the flowing spring from which they came.