The Red Sea.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
The last day of Passover is called shvi’i shel Pesach (the seventh day of Passover – and outside of Israel, also the eighth). It is distinct from the five days that precede it in that is a yom tov – a holiday on which melacha (certain types of work) is forbidden – like the first day of Passover. On this day, synagogues customarily read the portion of the splitting of the Red Sea and the Shirit Hayam (Song of the Sea) said afterward. This is in memory of the wondrous miracle that occurred on the holiday eve when the sea was split for our ancestors who had just left Egypt and they passed through as if on land, while their Egyptian masters who pursued them into the sea drowned.
This miraculous event sealed the process of liberation from Egyptian enslavement. Only a few hours before, as they stood at the sea’s edge, the nation experienced moments of tremendous crisis. The sea was in front of them, the Egyptians were quickly closing in behind, and they were trapped in between. This was an extremely distressing time.
“They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses... ‘What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?... We would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert!’' (Exodus 14, 10-12).
Immediately after Moses tried to calm the nation with the words, “Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation,” God commanded Moses to lift his staff and make a symbolic gesture of splitting the sea. And indeed, contrary to any forecast, the sea split in two and the Jewish nation walked through on dry land as the water stood on both sides of them like a defensive wall.
The miracle was so tangible and so overt that the sages of the Midrash described it with the following words: “A maidservant saw at the sea what Isaiah and Ezekiel did not see” (Mechilta of Rabbi Ishmael, Tractate d’Shira, Chapter 3). The greatest of prophets, people who had experienced divine revelation more than once or twice, people whose eternal words have been echoing for thousands of years and have shaped human history – they did not merit experiencing faith so clearly and tangibly as did the simplest of people who crossed the sea on foot that day.
Such an incredible miracle had a purpose – other than the elementary one of redeeming the Jewish people from their Egyptian pursuers. It contained a message for generations. Indeed, in every generation, commentators have offered explanations for the significance of this miracle. It seems that there are three central meanings.
First, the entire story of the Exodus from Egypt, from start to finish, is marked by God’s love for the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is important that we know this. The Jewish nation is the chosen one – a nation that was chosen for a lofty mission: “To repair the world in the kingdom of God.” This choice carries a huge love, as we say in the prayers of the holiday, “You have chosen us from among all peoples. You have loved us and taken pleasure in us. You have exalted us above all tongues and have sanctified us by Your commandments. You... have drawn us near to Your service.” Commandments are an expression of love. God gave each and every one of us a mission out of His great love for the Jewish people.
Second, the splitting of the sea was the pinnacle of control over the forces of nature. We are used to seeing nature carry on as though automatically. But at this point in history, the curtain was lifted, perception of reality was drastically altered, and we discovered faith: There is a power that controls reality. Sea and land are not independent entities, but are operated and controlled or changed by He Who is in charge of reality.
Third, our ancestors leaving Egypt, who understood the bitterness of their fate and saw that they had no escape from the pursuing Egyptian army, understood – and we continue to discover this again and again – that there is no such thing as a “dead end.”
“There is no despair in the world,” is quoted in the name of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. And this is also something we learn from the splitting of the sea. Even in situations of the deepest despair, we must not lose hope. Things can always be better. We must continue to hope, believe and pray.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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