The Talmud portrays Shirat HaYam, the Israelites’ song of thanksgiving at their miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, as a song of young children and babies:
|“When the Israelites exited the sea, they wanted to sing. How did they sing? A young child was sitting on his mother’s lap, and a baby was nursing at his mother’s breast. When they witnessed the Shechinah , the young child lifted his neck and the baby stopped nursing, and they sang out, “This is my God and I will honor Him” (Ex. 15:2).” (Sotah 30b)|
Why did the Sages describe Shirat HaYam as a song breaking forth spontaneously from the mouths of babes?
Kri'at Yam Suf, when the Red Sea split so that the Hebrew slaves could pass through to freedom, was the culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. A careful examination of the text, however, indicates that the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea had different objectives. The Ten Plagues and the Exodus were meant to ensure that “Egypt will know that I am God” (Ex. 7:5). The goal was knowledge of God. Through these wonders and miracles, the world would learn to acknowledge God’s existence and recognize His control over the universe.
As the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, however, God announced, “I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his armies” (Ex. 14:17). The miracle at the sea aimed for a higher goal: not just yedi'at Hashem, knowing God, but kevod Hashem - honoring God.
The obligation to honor God is learned from Proverbs: “Honor God from your wealth” (3:9). The Midrash Tanchuma explains that in addition to honoring God with one’s monetary wealth, one can also honor him with other gifts and talents, including song. For example, an individual blessed with a melodic voice should lead the communal prayers. Rashi explains that the word 'mei-honecha' (‘from your wealth'), may be read as 'mei-gronecha' — ‘from your throat.’
This leads us to a deeper understanding of what it means to honor God. Knowledge of God is a function of our intellectual faculties; but kavod comes from a deeper, more visceral part of our existence. Like the throat, it is connected to our essential life force — “If one’s neck is removed, one cannot live” (Midrash Shir HaShirim 4:6).
For this reason, the Midrash describes Shirat HaYam as a song that burst forth from the mouths of infants. The song at the Red Sea was a natural expression of the Israelites’ innate feeling of kevod Hashem. It emanated from their yearnings for God, even before they had proper knowledge of God, when they were like young children.
The Talmud teaches that one reciting the Shema prayer should mention both the Exodus and the Splitting of the Sea (Jer. Talmud Berakhot 1:6). The commentaries explain that we mention both events, since the redemption from Egypt began with the plagues and was completed with the miracle at the sea. And yet the Sages taught a surprising rule: one who forgot to mention the Exodus must go back and recite the Shema again, but one who forgot to mention the Splitting of the Sea does not need to recite the Shema again (Shemot Rabbah 23). If the Splitting of the Sea was the consummation of the Exodus, why is it not a mandatory part of the prayers?
We may better understand the difference between knowing God and honoring Him by contrasting basic mitzvah performance with hiddur mitzvah, the elaboration and beautification of a mitzvah. Every mitzvah has parameters and minimum requirements in order to properly fulfill it. Hiddur mitzvah means going beyond those basic requirements. Hiddur mitzvah is a reflection of our inner aesthetic side and an expression of unrestricted kevod Hashem. The Sages derived the concept of hiddur mitzvah from the poetic Song at the Sea, “This is my God and I will honor [or: beautify] Him” (Ex. 15:2).
This enables us to understand why one who failed to mention the Splitting of the Sea does not repeat his prayers. Honoring God, unlike knowledge and wisdom, is not defined within a fixed framework. Precisely because of its loftiness, kevod Hashem cannot be bound by set limits. It reflects a deeper and more innate aspect of our essence - a stirring of the inner song of the soul.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Shemuot HaRe’iyah (Beshalach 5630), quoted in Peninei HaRe’iyah, pp. 143-145.)