What is freedom? The last day of Passover

What is unique about this day is that it is a holiday unto itself.

Passover-related exhibition (photo credit: PR)
Passover-related exhibition
(photo credit: PR)
The last day of Passover in Israel is simply called Shvi’i shel Pesach, the seventh day of Passover.
What is unique about this day is that it is a holiday unto itself. As opposed to the days of Hol Hamoed, the days between the first and last days of the festival, which are a mixture of hol (non-holy) and kodesh (holy), the seventh day of Passover stands on its own as a sacred day that is kept like the first day of Passover.
This year, it falls on Thursday evening and ends as Shabbat begins. On this day, we will hear Shirat Hayam read in the synagogue – that song that Am Yisrael sang, conducted by Moses after the great miracle of the Parting of the Red Sea. This miracle took place on this day, seven days after Am Yisrael was liberated from Egypt.
Just before the sea split into two and made it possible for Am Yisrael to pass through it, we encounter an amazing drama. Am Yisrael was in a terrible state. They had been set free only seven days earlier and now they were standing on the edge of the sea with the tremendous Egyptian army behind them and nowhere to escape to. It seemed the tide was turning and that they would soon be returning to Egypt as demeaned slaves, and perhaps because of the escape, their work load would become even greater.
The reactions to the situation were varied. There were those who responded with anger and despair and preferred to return to Egypt. But there were also those who reacted differently and prayed to God from the depths of their hearts: “... and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them.
They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.” (Exodus 14:10) And immediately after this, we read this unusual verse: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.’” This verse is difficult to interpret: It did not say previously that Moses cried out to God.
The nation cried out, not Moses. Why then does God say to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to Me?” Furthermore, the verse contains a theological problem: A person of faith who finds himself in a difficult situation turns to God in prayer. This is the most natural thing that the Torah views positively. Why, then, at this moment of despair, does God say to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me?” The sages of the midrash focused on these two issues and found an original solution.
This is what they wrote: “Rabbi Yehuda bar Shalom said in the name of Rabbi Elazar: Flesh and blood, if a poor person comes to say something to him, he does not listen to his words, but if a rich person comes to say something, he immediately listens and accepts him.
But the Blessed Be He is not like this, all are equal before Him – men and women, slaves, poor and rich... Know that when the Israelites left Egypt, Pharaoh chased them... and it says, “and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord,” Moses began praying as well.
The Blessed Be He said to him: Why are you standing and praying? My children already prayed and I heard their prayer, as it says, “Why do you cry out to Me?” (Midrash Raba for the Book of Exodus, parasha 21) What an amazing solution.
Moses was indeed not praying; he just wanted to pray, but before he even got the chance to open his mouth, God said to him: There is no need for your prayer. The prayers of the nation were already heard.
The difficulties in both commentary and theology are solved at once. Prayer is indeed important and necessary, but it does not have to be the prayer of a leader. Even the prayers of “regular” people – men and women, slaves, rich and poor – are heard.
It is no coincidence that this message is written here, a moment before the ultimate liberation. Am Yisrael, leaving slavery for freedom, was familiar with a different kind of freedom: The Egyptians, the cruel oppressors, were free. No one ruled over them. This familiarity was dangerous because Am Yisrael could have adopted for itself this type of freedom, one that tramples others.
But it was not for this kind of freedom that they left Egypt.
A moment before the ultimate liberation, God reveals the characteristics of the desired freedom. This is freedom bestowed upon any and every person, without discrimination, with man’s infinite worth acknowledged.
The prayer of the simplest of people is accepted like the prayer of an admired leader.
The definition of the freedom for which Am Yisrael left Egypt is this: The faith that in God’s eyes, all people are valuable, all people are worthy of having their prayers heard, all people are worthy of happiness.
This idea was phrased beautifully in the US Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.