The last day of Passover in Israel is called shvi’i shel Pesach, the seventh day of Passover (outside of Israel, the last day of Passover is the eighth day). This day is different from those that precede it. As opposed to the intermediate days of the holiday, the last day is a festival like the first day and like Shabbat.
The historic event we mark on this day is the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. This miracle occurred seven days after the Jewish nation’s Exodus from Egypt and after completing the victory over the enslaving Egyptian nation.
When we read the segment in the Torah that describes the parting of the Red Sea and the events that preceded it, we notice that there was great confusion. Though the Jewish nation was liberated from Egyptian slavery, its members still felt like escaping slaves. The Exodus journey that began in Egypt ran into trouble when the Israelites reached the shores of the Red Sea and couldn’t continue. They saw the Egyptian army approaching behind them with its intimidating chariots and horses. The Israelites panicked when they grasped that the escape from Egypt could cost them dearly, and that the best-case scenario was a return to being slaves in Egypt.
Some Israelites called to God in despair, others turned angrily and harshly to Moses. He tried to calm them, promising salvation to come. But night fell and no salvation appeared on the horizon
On the shores of the raging sea, with the Egyptian army camped behind them, the Israelites were desperate and depressed. Moses called to God from the depths of his heart and received the clear instruction.
“Speak to the Children of Israel and let them travel!” But where to? Was the nation expected to march into the sea and drown? The instructions from God were clear: “And you raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea and split it, and the Children of Israel shall come in the midst of the sea on dry land.” (Exodus 14, 15-16)
The Children of Israel would march into the sea, and the sea would split and create a dry path that would open up to them, allowing them to cross! This was a completely supernatural occurrence.
And what of the Egyptian army? God informed Moses about this as well.
“AND I, BEHOLD! I shall harden the hearts of the Egyptians, and they will come after you, and I will be glorified through pharaoh, and through all his force, through his chariots, and through his horsemen.” (Ibid, 17). The Egyptian army led by King Pharaoh would pursue the escaping Israelites into the sea. There, in the depths of the sea, God would drown the Egyptians and save His children, the Jewish nation.
Those moments, when the Children of Israel stood frightened at the sea’s shore, in the dark, hearing the Egyptian army’s horses behind them, were moments of existential anxiety. There was no realistic solution to such a situation.
And despite that, a miracle happened. The great wonder of the splitting of the Red Sea has been etched in the collective consciousness of the Jewish people who celebrate the last day of Passover annually, retelling the story of the incredible miracle of being saved at the Red Sea.
But the Children of Israel were not completely passive. They had to walk into the sea, courageously, and with strong faith. The fate of the Jewish nation was set then for generations. The survival of the nation and its success against all odds are the result of miracles, but also of personal efforts. Effort alone would not have helped without a miracle, and a miracle alone would not have occurred had people not done what they had to do.
This is the Jewish world view. It is delicate, sensitive and complex. Faith in the existence of miracles is not meant to relieve one of making an effort. The parting of the Red Sea – the greatest miracle of all time – also occurred only after people marched into the sea, taking a potentially futile step permeated in faith.
This integration of miracles and nature, of human effort and Divine intervention, of courage and faith, is one of the layers in the glorious building constructed by the Jewish nation throughout the generations.
The last day of Passover is an opportunity to strengthen our faith in a complete redemption that will happen when we do what we have to do and merit – speedily and in our days – manifest miracles and wonders, as in the words of the prophet Micah (7, 15): “As in the days of your Exodus from the land of Egypt, I will show him wonders!” ■
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.