The story of the parting and crossing of the Red Sea has always moved and inspired me. I love its drama and the radical sense of possibility that it conveys. Even when stuck between a rock and hard place, there is a way out for our ancestors (and by extension, for us). The combination of faith and audacity – emunah and hutzpah – reveals a path that only moments before wasn’t visible. For me, the Sea is the wow! moment of the Exodus and of Passover.
(splitting of the Red Sea, panel from Dura-Europus, 3rd Century, C.E.)
According to Rabbinic tradition, the parting and crossing of the Sea took place on the 7th day after the Exodus itself. As a consequence, the Talmud assigns the Torah’s account of the Red Sea as the Scriptural reading for the end of Pesah. Rashi (11th Century) lays out the time frame: “they came and informed Pharaoh on the fourth day. On the fifth and the sixth [days after the Israelites’ departure], they pursued them. On the night preceding the seventh, they went down into the sea. In the morning [of the seventh day], they [the Israelites] recited the Song…”
Rashi’s schedule offers a fascinating detail. At the beginning of the seventh day, at nighttime, our ancestors went down to the Sea. But, it seems, they didn’t cross until the morning, which explains Rashi’s claim that they sang the Song in daylight, on the morning of the seventh day. What happened during that whole night of waiting at the shore of the Sea?
A number of ancient interpreters of the Bible share a tradition that a rebellion against Moses took place right then and there. In one version, the people divided into four camps, each making a different claim. One group said, “let’s go back,” another said, “let’s fight the Egyptians,” a third said, “let’s scream and confuse them,” and a final group said, “let’s just fall into the Sea,” and call it a day. (Targum Neophyti to Exodus 14:13-14] Perhaps not surprisingly, our ancestors spent this great, momentous night, not a week after another great, momentous night of redemption, arguing!
By the last days of Pesah, I, too, am weary of matzah. Yes, this holiday does promote a certain kind of crankiness. To judge from the Targum’s report curmudgeonly impatience was embedded into the original event. We’ve been a contentious lot from the very beginning!
The 16th Century Tzfat kabbalists transformed that sacred skepticism into an intriguing and beautiful spiritual practice that came to be known as Tikkun leyl Sh’vi’i. A leading Tzfat mystic, Abraham Galante, describes it this way: “On the seventh night of Passover they rise at midnight and recite until the parting of the Red Sea…; they sing songs of Torah until dawn. They then recite petitionary prayers at the conclusion of which they rise to their feet and sing the Psalm “When Israel went out of Egypt” (Psalms 114) in a sweet voice.”
Tonight, then, is a brilliant opportunity to meditate on this next crucial step on the path of freedom and redemption, whether you choose to pull an all-nighter or not. Even with a miracle, crossing the Sea didn’t happen without a struggle. As we continue to walk that road, let’s remember that freedom is neither automatic nor inevitable. Embracing it takes work, sustaining it takes even more.
Hag Sameah & Shabbat Shalom.