This is Pesach at its most poetic and dramatic. A people recalls its liberation and sings to God.
Few poets could put into words the soaring emotions of the moment. Few could match what Hertz has called “probably the oldest song of national triumph still extant”.
This is not the only song which Israel sang in the course of Biblical history (Mechilta, Shirata). They sang in Egypt on the night they departed. They sang when a well of water sprang up in the wilderness. Moses sang a song of joy and comfort before he died.
Joshua sang when he won a great victory. Deborah and Barak sang when they vanquished Sisera. David sang when he was delivered from his enemies. Solomon sang when the Temple was dedicated. King Yehoshaphat sang as he went into battle.
There were many songs, but only one Shirah.
The rabbis state (Meg. 31a) that it is read on the 7th day of Pesach, but they do not fully explain why. Rashi fills us in (Commentary on Ex. 14:5).
He says that when the Israelites went on the three-days’ journey which Pharaoh had allowed, royal officials went with them. On the 4th day the officials returned and told Pharaoh that the Israelites were not coming back. On the 5th and 6th days the king’s forces pursued the Israelites.
On the night of the 7th day the Egyptians drowned in the sea and the following morning the Israelites sang the Song of Praise, “and this was the 7th day of Pesach; that is why we read the Song on the 7th day”.
The Shirah is also found in the daily Shacharit service. The Zohar says, “Whoever reads the Shirah daily with devotion will have the merit to read it in Olam HaBa (the World to Come)”. Machzor Vitry regards the daily reading as “a good custom”.
This indicates that there is more than historical association behind the importance of the song. Indeed the sages saw the splitting of the Red Sea as evidence for God: at the Red Sea a handmaid is said to have felt more spirituality than even the prophets did.
The Tanya (Sha’ar HaYichud, ch. 2) comments on how apparently illogical it was for the waters of the sea to stand upright. This occurred only because of God’s decree.
If this was a miracle, “how much more so is it in the creation of being out of nothing which transcends nature and is far more miraculous than the splitting of the Red Sea, that with the withdrawal of the power of the Creator from the thing created, God forbid, it would revert to naught and complete non-existence.
“Rather, the Activating Force of the Creator must continuously be in the thing created to give it life and existence.”