In the closing lines of Shirat Hayam, Bnei Yisrael look to their future in Eretz Yisrael. They discuss the resident nations’ fear, and go on to describe the ideal state that will come with their own establishment in the land. In Shemot 15:17, they sing, “Tivi’emo Vitita’emo Behar Nachalaticha,” “May You bring them and implant them on the mountain of Your possession.” It seems that Bnei Yisrael are simply asking that they be securely established in Eretz Yisrael. But why do they ask for “them” to be brought into the Land? Would it not make more sense for them to say, “You will bring us?”
Mechilta (quoted by Rashi) explains that Bnei Yisrael were expressing an unwitting prophecy. Without realizing the implications of their words, they predicted that they themselves would not enter Eretz Yisrael. Rather, Hashem would bring and implant “them” – the children of the current generation. Still, points out the Beit Halevi, a question remains. Bnei Yisrael must have meant something when they said these words. If this prophecy was unintentional, what did they really have in mind at the time? Indeed, though the Beit Halevi does not mention it, the Chizkuni points out that Moshe and the nation clearly were quite convinced that they were going to enter they land; Moshe later tells his father-in-law Yitro, “Nos’im Anachnu El Hamakom…,” “We are traveling to the place…” (Bamidmar 10:29). Clearly, they did not know that it would only be their children who would enter. What, then, did they originally intend when they said, “May You bring and implant them?”
One possible answer may be embedded in the Midrash itself, or at least in the Riva (quoted by the Torat Chaim commentary on Chizkuni), who comments on Rashi. The Midrash states that “they prophesied without realizing what they were prophesying.” Similarly, the Riva writes that “this prophecy entered their mouths” via this phraseology. The implication that may be made from these sources is that Bnei Yisrael did not, in fact, understand what they were saying. They were merely inspired by a prophetic spirit, which caused them to utter predictive words that did not make sense to them. This may be supported by the fact that they describe Hashem’s “dwelling place,” as they call it later in the Pasuk, as “the mountain of Your possession.” According to several commentators, including Seforno and Ibn Ezra, this refers to Har Habayit. However, they had not yet been told what city Hashem would choose in Eretz Yisrael; it is referred to throughout Devarim as “the place Hashem will choose.” It is likely, then, that Bnei Yisrael did not understand this turn of phrase about the mountain, and it is therefore logical to say that they did not understand their own words about entering the Land, either.
The Beit Halevi, however, suggests a stronger answer. The Gemara in Pesachim (87b) states that Bnei Yisrael are exiled only so that there will be more converts. The Beit Halevi explains that Hashem could have punished us in a different way, but in order to encourage proselytes to join the nation, He chose this means of punishment. However, if Bnei Yisrael had not sinned and brought an exile upon themselves, these non-Jews would have come to Israel independently, and would have come to convert by that means. Unfortunately, our sins (and the corresponding downswing in Divine favor) diminished our reputation greatly, so the odds of this occurrence became quite slim. In order to assure that those destined for conversion would have their opportunity, Hashem sent us out into exile so we would have contact with those non-Jews.
It was about these people, not about themselves, that Bnei Yisrael said, “May You bring and implant them.” Two Pesukim before that phrase, they sang of the fear that would strike the current inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael. Bnei Yisrael were referring to those non-Jews when they mentioned “them.” As the Beit Halevi puts it, they were praying, “May You bring those among [the other nations] who are fit to join us to the mountain of Your possession. May they come to us, and may we not have to go to them.” What became a prophecy about not entering the Land started out as a prayer that the nation not be evicted from it.
This is closely connected to the interpretation of the Ibn Ezra (Hearuch), quoted by Seforno. He believes that “may You bring and implant them” was a prayer that many people would come to the mountain (or the Land), and that the nation not be exiled from it. Like the Beit Halevi, the Ibn Ezra suggests that Bnei Yisrael were really asking not only that they be brought to the Land, but that they never be forced off of it. Most unfortunately, this vision was not realized. Instead of their originally intended meaning, these prophetic words came to refer to the fact that only Bnei Yisrael’s children would enter the Land.
Perhaps the concept brought out by the Beit Halevi and the Ibn Ezra is an expression of a theme found elsewhere in Tanach, the mutability of prophecy. Bnei Yisrael had a very specific idea in mind when they sang their song. Despite the fact that their wording was carefully tailored to this idea, it was still possible for it to be changed to the very opposite meaning. Because of later flaws in Bnei Yisrael’s actions, Hashem completely reinterpreted the prediction of the Shirat Hayam, much to our detriment. Yet this is not always the way He works. He promised Avraham in the Brit Bein Habetarim that we would be in Mitzrayim for 400 years, but He reinterpreted the prophecy to allow us to leave sooner. According to the Midrash, this great kindness of Hashem was due to the good deeds performed by Bnei Yisrael in Mitzrayim. May we be Zocheh that our actions merit only positive realizations of prophecies, and may the prophecies fulfilled be those that describe the time of the Mashiach.