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Parashat Beshalah: Filling in the Blanks

Parashat Beshalah includes "Az Yashir," the beautiful song of praise which Beneh Yisrael sung after the miracle of Keri’at Yam Suf (the splitting of the sea). Anyone who looks at the way this section appears in the Torah scroll immediately notices something unusual. The text of "Az Yashir" is written with large breaks of blank text interspersed among the words. The Gemara refers to this arrangement as "Ariah Al Gabeh Lebena" – "a half-brick on top of a whole brick." Every piece of text is situated on top of mostly a blank space, with text appearing underneath only the edges, like a brick resting on the edges of two bricks separated by a wide empty space.

What is the meaning behind this arrangement? Why are there empty spaces in the middle of the text of "Az Yashir"?

Rav Yishak Karo (1458-1535), the uncle of Maran (author of the Shulhan Aruch), explained that the blank spaces allude to the fact that there is so much more than needs to be said. The Gemara in Masechet Berachot (33) establishes that it is improper to praise G-d beyond the praises prescribed by our Sages, because indulging in praise gives the impression that we are capable of giving G-d all the praises He deserves. It is impossible to express all the praise owed to G-d, because He is His infinite. As such, any praise we express is, by definition, flawed, and even potentially dangerous, as it may be understood as comprehensively encapsulating the Almighty’s greatness. Therefore, blank spaces are made in the text of "Az Yashir" to indicate the incompleteness of the praise. Although Beneh Yisrael praised G-d for this great miracle, they realized that their praise was incomplete, and there is infinitely more that needs to be said.

There is, however, an additional explanation.

"Az Yashir" is far more than a song sung by a group of people after experiencing a miracle. The Hid"a (Rav Haim Yosef David Azulai, 1724-1806) writes that whoever recites "Az Yashir" with intense concentration earns forgiveness for all his sins. Other books mention that reciting "Az Yashir" with concentration can help a person resolve even the most intractable problems. If a person finds himself "trapped" in a difficult dilemma that seems to have no solution, just like Beneh Yisrael were trapped against the sea and could not see any way out, he should recite "Az Yashir" and will be helped. "Az Yashir" is a song with immense spiritual power, and Beneh Yisrael realized at the time that they were composing a song for all future generations, that would bring help and salvation to untold numbers of Jews for all time. This is why the introductory verse says that Beneh Yisrael sang this song "Lemor" – literally, "to say." They sung this song so it would be continued to be sung for all time.

As much as Beneh Yisrael knew the significance of the song they were now singing, they knew also of their limitations. They realized they lacked the knowledge and insight to infuse the song with the force and power that it needed to have. And so they left empty spaces, relying on G-d to "fill in the blanks." The empty spaces in "Az Yashir" symbolize the "empty spaces" in our prayers, our deficiencies and incompleteness. Even when we try to pray with sincerity, purity of mind and concentration, we know that our prayers will never be perfect. We therefore leave "empty spaces" and ask G-d to fill them, to make our prayers perfect in the merit of our efforts.

It is told that Rav Levi Yishak of Berditchev (1740-1809) once called for a special day of prayer in his community because of a grave crisis which they faced. The community’s prayers were answered, and the dangers were averted. Afterward, Rav Levi Yishak said that the decrees against the town were annulled specifically in the merit of one congregant – the wagon driver. The people were stunned. The wagon driver was a simple ignoramus, and nobody understood why his prayers would be so special that they saved the entire town.

The people approached the wagon driver to ask him about his prayers. Visibly embarrassed, he said that he did not know how to pray; he could not even read the text in the Siddur. So when the community gathered for prayer, he told G-d that he would say the only thing he could – the letters of the Alef-Bet – and he asked G-d to do the rest, to take the letters and arrange them into the appropriate prayers.

Rav Levi Yishak said that this was, indeed, the most powerful prayer recited by the community. This simple man did what he could and relied on G-d to do the rest.

This is precisely the attitude we should have towards prayer, and toward our religious lives in general. We must try our hardest do all we can, and then beg the Almighty to "fill in the blanks" and generously accept our service as though it is perfect.

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