Pesach-Eighth Day in the Diaspora
April 27, 2008
22 Nisan 5768
The seventh (and eighth day in the diaspora) of Pesah mark the crowning event of the exodus: \”kriyat yam suf -the splitting of the sea\”, where the children of Israel marched through the surging sea on the dry land that God provided for them. This miraculous episode forever shapes the Jewish religious imagination (not just that of Jews*) and is evoked throughout the generations as evidence of God\’s redemptive capability. Isaiah\’s redemptive expectations are refracted through this event: \”The Lord will dry up the tongue of the Egyptian sea. He will raise His hand over the Euphrates with the might of His wind and break it into seven wadis, so that it can be trodden dry-shod. Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt. (Isaiah 11:15-16)
Moreover, later on, in the rabbinic tradition, the relationship between the past redemption and the future redemption becomes more than just a matter of envisioning the future in the past. The events of the past and the anticipated acts of the future take on a symbiotic relationship with each other. The future events come to describe the past event and the past event comes to act as proof that the future redemption will, in fact, happen: \”\’And the Lord went before them in a pillar of cloud by day\’ (Ex. 13:21) There were seven clouds, four on the four sides of them, one above them, one beneath them, one before them to repair the road before them, raising the depressions and lowering the elevations to make for them a plain, as it says: \’Every valley should be lifted up and every hill and mountain shall be made low and the rugged shall be made level, and the rough places a plain\’ (Isaiah 40:4) Thus there shall be a highway for the other part of His people out of Assyria, such as there was for Israel when it left the land of Egypt. (Ibid. 11:15-16) Behold these verses comes to teach and from it we learn that in the future to come all valleys will be raised and all mountains will become plains just like when we came up from Egypt.\” (adapted from Mechilta de Rashbi 13:21 Epstein-Melamed ed. p. 47)
This intersection of past and future makes an important religious statement. It is not uncommon for us to project our future hopes on the events of the past and for the past to inspire our future. Similarly, when we experience desperation, we better understand our situation by reflecting it off the events of the past which have already described similar tragedy. This is why the experience of slavery in Egypt and the redemption from it reverberate back and forth between past and future providing strength, inspiration and hope for weathering a troubled present and building a better tomorrow.
*[See for example the book of my childhood friend, Rev. Dr. Allen Callahan, The Talking Book: African Americans and the Bible (p. 85), where he writes: \”African Americans were slaves when they collectively encountered the story of the Exodus: it was as slaves that they first learned of this story about slaves. The Bible told of a miraculous mass flight of slaves orchestrated by God himself. At the shore of the yam suph, literally, “Sea of Reeds,” the escaping Israelites are pursued by Egyptian chariots and cavalry led by Pharaoh to reclaim the Hebrew fugitives. Pinned between the desert and the sea, the Israelites panic at the sight of Pharaoh’s army in the distance. God directs Moses to wave his staff over the sea, which divides to allow the Israelites safe passage. When Pharaoh’s army attempts to pursue them, the waters come crashing down on the Egyptians, drowning Pharaoh’s entire host. On freedom’s shore, the Israelites sing one of the oldest canticles in all of Scripture, the song of God’s miraculous victory over Pharaoh’s chariots.
Sing ye to the LORD; for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea. (Exodus 15:21)
It was precisely the miraculous glory of the Israelites’ liberation that African American slaves embraced so enthusiastically: the Negro Spirituals would later echo this exultation of divine triumph. The Negro Spirituals sing of God’s deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea, and are our oldest testimony to the Exodus in African American folk tradition.
The Negro Spirituals testify that with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm God intervened in the life of his captive children to free them from bondage. He had seen their affliction, heard their cries, knew their sorrows, and had delivered them.\”
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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