In Parashat Naso, the Torah instructs the House of Kehat to carry the Aron on their shoulders and not to carry it on a wagon with the words, “BaKateif Yisa’u,” “They shall carry it on shoulders” (BeMidbar 7:9). In Sefer Shmuel Bet (Perek 6), David HaMelech forgot this law. After recapturing the Aron from the Pelishtim, he had the Aron carried to Yerushalayim on a wagon. Because of this decision, Uzzah saw the Aron falling from the wagon, grabbed it, and was killed. David HaMelech was upset that he had allowed this to happen.
The Gemara (Sotah 35a) tells us that Hashem was displeased with David for referring to the Torah as a Zemirah when he said, “Zemirot Hayu Li Chukecha,” “Your statutes were like songs to me” (Tehillim 119:54). Therefore, Hashem said, “If you refer to My Torah as a song, I will cause you to forget a law that even young schoolchildren know (i.e., the law that the Aron must be carried on shoulders).” Rabbi Frand quotes The Vilna Gaon who asks what was wrong with David referring to the Torah as Zemirah if the Torah refers to itself as a song when Hashem commands Moshe and Yehoshua, “VeAtah Kitvu Lachem Et HaShirah HaZot,” “And write for yourselves this Shirah (song)” (Devarim 31:19). The Gaon explains that there is a major difference between a Zemirah and a Shirah. A Zemirah is a defined, structured song with a beginning and an end. A Shirah is infinite. It is an expression of an emotion, a need to express oneself. A similar usage of the root of “Shir” is “Az Yashir Moshe,” “Then Moshe sang” (Shemot 15:1), where it is an expression of gratitude and thanks to Hashem for the miracles at Yam Suf.
I recall spending a Shabbat in Boro Park with my wife’s cousin, an older Rav at the Beis Yaakov there. I have never seen anyone sing songs the way he sang Zemirot on Shabbat. He turned Zemirot into Shirot. His singing was obviously not done by route or without heart. They were a genuine expression of emotion, truly not just singing but singing to Hashem.
There is a story about the Baal Shem Tov that clarifies this point. One year, Rav Yisrael Baal Shem Tov said to Rav Ze’ev Kitzes, one of his senior disciples, “You will blow the Shofar for us this Rosh HaShanah. I want you to study all the Kavanot (Kabbalistic meditations) that pertain to the Shofar so that you should meditate upon them when you do the blowing.”
Rav Ze’ev applied himself to the task with joy and trepidation – joy over the great privilege that had been accorded him and trepidation over the immensity of the responsibility. He studied the Kabbalistic writings that discuss the multifaceted significance of the Shofar and what its sounds achieve on the various levels of reality and in the various chambers of the soul. He also prepared a sheet of paper on which he noted the main points of each Kavanah, so that he could refer to them when he blew the Shofar.
Finally, the great moment arrived. It was the morning of Rosh HaShanah, and Rav Ze’ev stood on the reading platform in the center of the Baal Shem Tov’s synagogue, amidst the Torah scrolls and surrounded by a sea of Tallit-draped bodies. At his table in the southeast corner of the room stood his master, the Baal Shem Tov, his face aflame. An awed silence filled the room in anticipation of the climax of the day, the piercing blasts and sobs of the Shofar.
Rav Ze’ev reached into his pocket and his heart froze; the paper had disappeared! He distinctly remembered placing it there that morning, but now it was gone. Furiously, he searched his memory for what he had learned, but his distress over the lost notes seemed to have incapacitated his brain: his mind was a total blank. Tears of frustration filled his eyes. He had disappointed his master, who had entrusted him with this most sacred task. Now he must blow the Shofar like a simple horn, without any Kavanot. With a despairing heart, Rav Ze’ev blew the litany of sounds required by law and, avoiding his master’s eye, resumed his place.
At the conclusion of the day’s prayers, the Baal Shem Tov made his way to the corner where Rav Ze’ev sat sobbing under his Tallit. “Gut Yom Tov, Reb Ze’ev!” he called. “That was a most extraordinary Shofar-blowing we heard today!”
“But Rebbe ... I ...”
“In the king’s palace,” said the Baal Shem Tov, “there are many gates and doors, leading to many halls and chambers. The palace-keepers have great rings holding many keys, each of which opens a different door. But there is one key that fits all the locks, a master key that opens all the doors.
“The Kavanot are keys, each unlocking another door in our souls, each accessing another chamber in the supernal worlds. But there is one key that unlocks all doors and opens for us the innermost chambers of the divine palace. That master key is a broken heart.”
So too when we see the Torah as a shirah, as eternal, coming from our hearts it will unlock all our inner gates and allow us to open the Heavenly ones. We should all be Zocheh (merit) to turn all the Zemirot in our lives into Shirot.