Blank Space!

At the conclusion of the Torah reading in the synagogue someone is honored with lifting the Torah. He lifts it up and spreads it out so that at least three columns of the sacred writing are shown to the congregants. When the congregation sees the script they recite two verses of the Torah beginning with, V’zos HaTorah…“This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the children of Israel, upon the command of G-d, through Moshe’s hand.”

Generally speaking if one takes a quick glance at the columns of the Torah they all look similar. The columns are perfectly justified with the traditional blank spaces signifying a paragraph break that appear either in the middle of a line or that spread from the last written word in a sentence to the end of the line, similar to the common end of a paragraph.

However, around the time when the portion of Beshalach is read, one will notice that the writing of one of the columns of the Torah has a different look to it. It is written in a specific poem-like format. In fact, it is indeed the poem/song of Az Yashir – that Moshe and the Jewish people sang to G-d in appreciation of their miraculous salvation from the Egyptians when the sea split for them and drowned the Egyptians.

The format of the writing of the song of Az Yashir is done in a specific Halachik traditional way. The Talmud refers to it as, ‘Empty space upon a brick and a brick upon empty space.’ This translates as follows:

Of the thirty lines that Az Yashir occupies, the first line is written without any breaks. Beginning with the second line a single word is written, then blank space in the equivalent of nine letters, then four or five words are written, a space of at least nine letters, and a single word is written at the end of the line.

On the following line a few words are written at the beginning of the line, then a blank space of nine letters, and then a few words are written to complete the line.

This format repeats itself throughout the song.

Basically, the song is written in the same format as bricks are laid to create a structure.

The Kedushas Levi explains the profundity of what the empty space represents. G-d created the world by uttering statements and when Adam actually named things in Hebrew, the words that he gave to the items or beings, infused them with a certain level of existence. For example when water was called Mayim, the word energized water to follow a specific practice and behavior.

At the splitting of the Red Sea when the natural flow of water was suspended so that the Jews were able to travel through the split walls, in essence, the word Mayim – water had to be eliminated from wherever the waters split. The blank spaces in the Az Yashir represent the concept of the elimination of the word Mayim which allowed G-d’s miracle to occur.

Reb Tzodok Hakohain cites Sefer Hayetzirah which explains that each letter of the Torah is compared to a stone and when letters/stones are fused together with other letters/stones they form a building through the words they create.

This explains why our sages use the term to describe the format of Az Yashir as, ‘Empty space upon a brick and a brick upon empty space.’

Commentators point out that the empty spaces throughout the song are the space needed for one to pause and contemplate the words and concepts that were stated.

Additionally, just as one expresses his thankfulness and appreciation to G-d through words, King David in the Psalms tells us that one can express their thanks to G-d with silence as well; this is when words can’t quite capture one’s gratitude to the Almighty, then silent and internal feelings take over.

The song of Az Yashir is so special to us that we recite it every day in our morning prayers. We mention again the miracle of the splitting of the Red Sea before the Amidah prayer both in the morning and evening prayers.

The Talmud points out that the way the Jews (approx.2.5 million) sang Az Yashir together with Moshe was astounding and miraculous. Either they all miraculously heard Moshe recite each verse and then repeated it in unison, or they were each prophetically enabled to recite the words in unison with Moshe!

When reviewing the verses of Az Yashir, one will be surprised that only one verse describes the fabulous miracles that happened to the Jews during the splitting of the Red Sea. The majority of verses describe the destruction of the Egyptians and contain prophetic references to future events. Why not expound on their personal miracles?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab o.b.m. explains; our minds are engineered to comprehend natural events, but a supernatural event of such magnitude as the splitting of the Red Sea, of which the Hagadah states there were up to 250 miracles, although it was witnessed by millions of people, defies human understanding, and therefore the song does not focus on it.

The focus of the song is G-d causing the upright walls of waters to return to their natural state thereby destroying the Egyptians; this we can relate to.

Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman o.b.m. explains that generally speaking people don’t take into account miracles that happen to themselves as much as how they sense when punishment and destruction is rightfully done to others. It is therefore the aspect of the destruction of the wicked Egyptians which the song of thanks primarily captures.

This Shabbos has a special title, Shabbos Shirah – due to the song of Az Yashir – may we merit always having reason and ability to express and sing our appreciation to G-d!