[This is my article from this week's Toronto Torah]
On Shabbat Shirah, when we read Parshat Beshalach’s account of our ancestors’ miraculous passage through the split Sea and their song of thanks, Jews traditionally throw wheat kernels to the birds. The practice seems to be problematic, in that one may not feed undomesticated animals on Shabbat; indeed, the Magen Avraham (324:7), writing in the 17th century, prohibited it. However, numerous authorities (Tosefet Shabbat 324:17, Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 324:3, and see Tzitz Eliezer 14:28) have justified the practice, because we are not doing this for the sake of feeding wildlife. Rather, we do this in order to recall the joy of crossing through the Sea, a moment when even the birds recognized the miracle and were moved to sing praises before HaShem. The rabbinic decrees against feeding animals do not apply to such a practice.
The combination of the joyous song of the birds and the joyous song of our ancestors invests this entire day with the identity of “Shabbat Shirah”, a Shabbat of celebratory song. What is a Jew to do, though, when he doesn’t feel the joy, whether due to external circumstance or internal turmoil? How can we sing, if we are depressed? What does a sad Jew do, in order to participate in Shabbat Shirah?
Rabbi Yisroel of Rizhin (as cited in Netivot Shalom, Shemot pg. 121) suggested that although certain days have identities which dictate their Torah readings, Shabbat Shirah is created by its Torah reading. Shabbat Shirah becomes Shabbat Shirah only when we read about the departure from Egypt, and the splitting of the Sea; this experience stimulates joy in depressed hearts, and catalyzes songs of praise for Gd.
When the Creator of the Universe sends the message to Pharaoh, “בני בכורי ישראל,” “My child, my firstborn, is Israel,” our chests swell. When the Source of All declares, “כה אמר ד',” “Thus speaks G-d,” and when the King of Kings commands, “שלח עמי ויעבדני,” “Send out My nation, and they will serve Me,” we come face to face with the first, greatest and most enduring source of Jewish pride: Our membership in a covenant with HaShem.
The spirit builds slowly through Pharaoh’s repeated stalling tactics and afflictions, until, ultimately, G-d descends to Egypt to personally dispatch our tormentor, highlighting the unique status of the Jewish nation. We are taught that G-d did not employ natural means, and G-d did not send an emissary; He altered Creation, Himself, for our sake.
Finally, this is followed by the account of the Jews trembling in terror before the sea, marching through the night and finally emerging on the shore to recognize their torturers vanquished and their chains irreversibly smashed. This ultimate validation of the tradition passed down from our founding fathers and mothers placed the stamp of truth upon our national aspirations.
This story can, if taken personally and seriously, redound positively and powerfully within the listener and move the sensitive soul to a crescendo of joy, and therefore song, as a nation, our nation, is freed from centuries of slavery, spared from imminent destruction, and launched upon a trajectory to greatness, in a single night that dawns upon a new day of freedom. This is the engine of Shabbat Shirah.
Shabbat Shirah is not a day to sing; it is a day on which to draw inspiration, and to be moved to sing.
When we listen to kriat haTorah this Shabbat not with an ear toward our neighbors but with an ear toward the joy-inducing events recorded therein, that will bring us to song. May we then merit the fulfillment of the prediction of Sanhedrin 91b, that the day will come when we will sing the song of Moshe, Miriam and the Jews together again.
Note: There is another element of שירה (song) in the idea of שיר as a circular ornament, and the circular lyrical structure of biblical poetry, and the idea of שירה as acceptance of the complete circle that is "human action-Divine reaction", but that's beyond the scope of this article.