Passover: What are we happy about?

‘The Torah conceals the connection between this holiday and the parting of the Red Sea since our joy is not due to the deaths of the Egyptians, but rather due to our liberation...'

April 13, 2017 11:08
3 minute read.
Pyramid in Egypt

Pyramid in Egypt. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The seventh (or eighth, outside Israel) day of Passover is different from the five days preceding it in that it is a yom tov – a holiday on which acts of melacha (work) are forbidden, like the first day of the holiday. On this day, Jews traditionally read the parasha about the parting of the Red Sea and the song that followed it, in commemoration of the wondrous miracle that took place on the eve of the holiday when the sea parted and made way for the newly liberated People of Israel to cross and escape the Egyptian masters who followed them into the sea and drowned.

It is interesting to note that the Torah never mentions the date on which the parting of the sea took place. The date is implied clearly in the story, but is never mentioned explicitly. Moreover, even before the liberation and the exodus from Egypt, Moses told the nation about to be set free about the holiday they are going to celebrate. He mentioned that the first and last day of the holiday would be a “yom tov” on which doing “melacha” would be forbidden. But while the first day was explained in detail as the day on which the Children of Israel would be liberated from Egypt, the last day is not explained at all. This raises the question about the connection between this day and the parting of the Red Sea which took place on it.

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Why, indeed, does the Torah not explicitly mention the date of the parting? Why doesn’t the command regarding the last day of Passover come with a clear explanation as to the reason behind the holiday?

The sages of the Talmud tell us about a surprising heavenly occurrence that took place on this night:

“The angels wanted to sing a song [about the drowning of the Egyptians in the sea]. The Blessed be He said: ‘My creations are drowning in the sea – and you are singing a song?!’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megila, 10)

The angels wanted to sing before God. There is nothing more natural than this when the Jewish people – the children of God – are liberated from the Egyptians. But God stops them: “My creations are drowning in the sea – and you are singing a song?!”

Those same Egyptians who tortured their slaves for so many years, and did so cruelly and unjustifiably, they too are God’s “creations.” He is not happy about their drowning. It would have been better had they changed their ways and behaved morally, respecting the rights of the Jews living among them. Indeed, God is happy that the Jewish slaves have been liberated from oppressive slavery, but the joy is mixed with a touch of sorrow. God is sorry about the killing of people, any people, even cruel Egyptians. All people, good and bad, were created “in the image of God” and are therefore important and liked by Him.

This is why the Torah does not explicitly note that the date of the parting of the Red Sea is the last day of Passover. We do not celebrate the drowning of the Egyptians on this day. Jews were not given holidays to commemorate the fall of our enemies because God is not happy when evil people die. The reason for the celebration is the redemption of the Jewish nation, not the fall of the Egyptian enemy. The Torah conceals the connection between this holiday and the parting of the Red Sea since our joy is not due to the deaths of the Egyptians, but rather due to our liberation from slavery and our exodus from Egypt.

We must always remember this principle. The Jewish nation should be on a higher level than its enemies and even when left with no choice but to go to battle, we should do so with a sense of sorrow when our enemies die. We are happy about our victory, not about the fall of our enemies. Rabbi Akiva phrased it beautifully with the words: “Beloved is man – any man – for he was created in the image of God” (Tractate Avot, Chapter 3, Mishna 14). ■

The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites.

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