This climactic prayer of Pesukei d'Zimrah leads us to where genuine expressions of divine praise inevitably must: to service of God.
Az Yashir — literally “Then [he] will sing” — is a biblical poem that serves as the penultimate prayer of Pesukei d’Zimrah, the “verses of praise” that open the daily morning prayer service.
Az Yashir is an extended quotation from the 15th chapter of the Book of Exodus, which recounts the song of praise Moses leads the people in singing to God after the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds. Along with the Shema, Az Yashir is one of only two prayers recited during the weekday morning service that are extended quotations from the Torah.
Az Yashir is the climactic moment of Pesukei d’Zimrah, whose function in the daily prayer service is mostly preparatory. Through the recitation of various poems of praise, we set a mood and cultivate a certain mindset as preparation for the real meat of prayer — the Shema and the Amidah, which come later. As the Mishnah in Brakhot teaches, one cannot pray without first cultivating a sense of awe.
In curating a section intended to foster awe, the creators of the daily prayer service quite understandably reached for some of the most emotionally resonant language in the biblical canon. Most of Pesukei d’Zimrah is made up of selections from the Book of Psalms, the 150 chapters of poetry attributed to King David that run the full gamut of human emotion.
Az Yashir is also a work of poetry. In the Torah scroll, Az Yashir is one of only two selections that break from the normal block column layout, spreading the words across the column in a format more akin to the way poetry is rendered on the page. And like the psalms, Az Yashir is an extended expression of praise. Most of the prayer amounts to a recounting of the greatest miracle God ever performed for the Jewish people — the dramatic suspension of the laws of nature that allowed the Israelites to pass through the sea unharmed while drowning the pursuing Egyptian cavalry in the waters.
The verses here brim with vivid imagery of God’s might deployed in spectacular fashion.
At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, The floods stood straight like a wall; The deeps froze in the heart of the sea. You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them; They sank like lead in the majestic waters. You put out Your right hand, The earth swallowed them.
If Pesukei d’Zimrah is intended to evoke awe and inspire praise — or, as some have noted, to emphasize our smallness in the face of God’s infinitude — one could scarcely find more appropriate language. This theme is extended as the poetic narrative continues, relating how other ancient peoples trembled in fear when they heard of the miracle the God of Israel had performed.
Finally, after the fire and brimstone have been deployed and the people safely delivered to dry land, the text reaches its conclusion:
You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain, The place You made to dwell in, O LORD, The sanctuary, O LORD, which Your hands established. The Lord will reign forever and ever.
Here, we come to understand God’s end game: the establishment of a “sanctuary” on God’s “own mountain” — that is, the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is of course a central theme of the Jewish story of redemption, that the awesome miracles and fiery displays of heavenly power weren’t intended merely to remove the fetters of Egyptian slavery, but to enable the Jewish people to fulfill their divine mission of constructing an abode for God here on earth.
But it’s also a reflection of the arc of our modern prayer services. Like the display of godly power witnessed at the splitting of the sea, the verses of praise that take up half of the traditional text of the morning service aren’t an end in themselves. They aim to cultivate the proper conditions for the heart of Jewish prayer — the Shema and, later, the Amidah, which is the contemporary placeholder for the sacrifices once offered in the Temple.
Az Yashir thus functions as a bridge of sorts. The bulk of it is praise for the most amazing miracle God ever performed, but it leads us to where genuine expressions of divine praise inevitably must: to service of God.