The words “az yashir,” which Moshe and klal Yisrael sang at the Yam Suf, seem to be questionable, and Chazal wonder about it. The word “yashir” (will sing) is future tense, while the Torah is narrating for us an event that took place in the past. This prompted the Gemara (Sanhedrin 91b) to cite this pasuk as one of the Biblical sources for the concept of T’chiyas HaMeisim (Resurrection of the Dead). The Gemara says that, in fact, the words “az yashir” allude to a future event, after the time of T’chiyas HaMeisim, when Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing a beautiful song of thanks.
The Shlah HaKadosh writes that every Jew should thank Hashem even before he or she sees a salvation. If one is undergoing a difficult period in his or her life, thank Hashem – say “Hodu LaShem ki tov” or sing a song of shirah – and this will encourage the y’shuah to come. It takes a great deal of emunah to praise and thank Hashem while still in the throes of danger and suffering, but those great people in klal Yisrael who managed to accomplish this, did indeed see the Yad Hashem in its full glory.
During the Second World War, Hungarian Jews comprised just over eight percent of the population, but the government imposed forced labor brigades, performed by labor battalions conscripted by the German-allied Hungarian regime, primarily consisting of Hungarian Jewish men. The commanders of these labor battalions often treated the Jewish units with extreme cruelty, abuse, and brutality. Men who worked in mine quarries were frequently pushed to their deaths off the man-made cliffs. The gendarmes who guarded these brigades were mostly members of the anti-Semitic, fascist Arrow Cross Party.
Rav Moshe Shmuel Kornitzer zt”l, an einikel of the Chasam Sofer and a member of the Orthodox k’hilah in Hungary after the war, was enlisted in one of these backbreaking labor brigades, stationed on the Pest side of the Danube River which runs north to south through the city of Budapest. It didn’t always run through a single city, though. The western side of the river was once the city of Buda and the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary. Across the river to the east was the ancient city of Pest. Beginning in 1849, the two cities were connected by a number of bridges. One day, Rav Moshe Shmuel’s brigade was ordered to march and, although at first, the Jews did not know to where they were being led, it soon became clear that this march was really a death march – across the bridge from Pest into Buda, and from there on towards the border with Austria.
Over 60,000 Jews were deported in this manner, and the conditions were atrocious: lack of food or drink, walking in terrible conditions, in pouring rain and howling winds. Whoever could not keep up was forced to step aside and summarily shot. People were dropping like flies, but escape was impossible as the guards were everywhere. The Jews in these death marches understood that the moment they walked over the bridge into Buda, their chances of survival were next to nothing. At all costs, they needed to remain on the Pest side – but what could they do? They were powerless at this point.
Rav Moshe Shmuel decided to employ the only option he still had. He recalled that just as B’nei Yisrael stood by the Yam Suf and recited a song of shirah, thanking Hashem for their salvation, he too, would sing this very same song as he stood on the bridge overlooking the banks of the Danube River, and maintain a firm belief that Hashem will come to his aid. With the same tune that Yidden all over the world read the Shiras HaYam in shul, Rav Moshe Shmuel began singing his very own shirah, and his passion while he sang became apparent. He truly believed, with an emunah sh’leimah, that the y’shuah was going to come.
As Rav Moshe Shmuel and his brigade were walking across the middle of the bridge, an automobile suddenly sped past them and quickly stopped at the head of the march. A man got out of the car and began speaking to the Arrow Cross leader who was heading the march. They spoke for a few moments, with much hand gesticulation and angry words. Then, the man got back into his car and drove away. A moment later, the order was given to halt and turn back. The entire column of men was ordered to turn around and walk back to their barracks in Pest. Later, it was learned that the man in the car was none other than the renowned Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, who is credited with saving so many Jewish lives.
Rav Moshe Shmuel later recalled, “By saying my own shirah, I was able to express my feelings of trust in Hashem’s salvation.”