The Torah portion of Beshallach describes how, after “Israel beheld the mighty hand which G‑d wielded against the Egyptians, … Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song (shirah) … and they declared saying: ‘I will sing….’ ”1

It is self-evident from this verse that Moshe began the shirah before the children of Israel did.2 But there is a dispute in the Gemara3 as to what portion was sung by the Jewish people:

According to R. Akiva, only Moshe recited the entire shirah ; the nation merely responded: “I will sing to G‑d.”

R. Eliezer maintains that the Jews also recited the entire shirah , but only after (and in response to) Moshe’s recitation.

R. Nechemiah contends that Moshe only began the shirah alone, after which he and the people recited the remainder in unison.

What factors underlie the Sages’ dispute?

The Or HaChayim4 remarks that “The Jewish people sang the shirah in absolute unity, without difference and separation between them; they were like one person. This explains why the verse uses the singular term ‘I will sing,’ and not ‘We will sing.’ ” And this would also explain why the recitation had to begin with Moshe, for such utter unity can only be accomplished by Moshe, the head and leader of the generation, who encompasses all the Jewish people as one within him. As Rashi states:5 “Moshe is the Jewish people and the Jewish people are Moshe … the head of the generation is likened to the entire generation, for the leader is all.”

Since Moshe initiated the shirah on behalf of all the people, their singing came as a result of being empowered by him, and they were thus able to sing “as one person.”

This is the intent of the Mechilta in its comment on the verse: “Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang…” The Mechilta notes: “Moshe is equivalent to all the Jewish people, and the Jewish people were equivalent to Moshe at the time they sang the shirah.”6

In light of the above, we may discern the reason for the different opinions regarding the manner of recitation:

Since the shirah had to be recited in such a way that all Jews were united, all agree that it had to be started by Moshe — the one individual capable of bringing about unity and equality among all Jews. Moreover, the recitation by the Jewish people resulted from their uniting their shirah with Moshe’s, sensing as they did that “the Jewish people are Moshe.”

The difference in the three opinions is merely in the manner of the nation’s recitation as it relates to the people’s unification with Moshe:

According to R. Akiva, only Moshe recited the entire shirah ; the Jewish people merely responded: “I will sing to G‑d.” In other words, the people fulfilled their obligation to recite the shirah through Moshe’s recitation. For R. Akiva maintains that the Jews were so nullified before Moshe that they fulfilled their obligation through him by merely responding: “I will sing to G‑d.”

R. Eliezer maintains that the Jews “repeated whatever he said.” According to R. Eliezer, absolute unity is only achieved when the Jewish people sense it within themselves; they themselves recite the shirah, and each feels it on his or her own individual level. However, the nation did so only in response to Moshe — they felt wholly dependent upon him.

Rabbi Nechemiah, however, concludes that absolute unity can only come about when “all said the shirah as one,” stressing that “Moshe is the Jewish people and the Jewish people are Moshe.”

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XXXI, pp. 69-72.