When Shabbat falls on the first day of Pesach, Yom Rishon shel Pesach, we read in Torah Moses’ instructions to, “remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage …” (Exodus 13:3); beginning with this first night of Passover, which “was for the Eternal a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; … one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages” (Exodus 12:42). These texts express strong themes of the transition from slavery to freedom exemplified by images of God’s power.
The themes are lifted up further in the joyous, exultant language in Shirat HaYam, the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15ff). On Pesach, we read and chant Shirat HaYam, the Israelites’ victory song, which they sang after they arrived on dry ground and Pharaoh and his men drowned in the Reed Sea. We’re most familiar with these verses, because they appear in weekday, Shabbat, and Festival liturgy:
Who is like You, Eternal One, among the celestials;
Who is like You, majestic in holiness,
Awesome in splendor, working wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
A rhetorical question is asked in these verses, which at once elevates and separates God from all other gods. Obviously, no one “is like You, Eternal One,” even among all the gods that are worshiped by others. Then, fittingly, God’s wonders are illustrated with grand metaphors that demonstrate God’s power over the Israelites’ mortal Egyptian enemies:
You put out Your right hand,
The earth swallowed them.
In Your love You lead the people You redeemed;
In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode. (Exodus 15:12-13)
But, what is God’s unique “strength” by which God guided the Israelites to God’s holy abode? In a Midrash we learn: "For the sake of the Torah, which they [Israelites] were destined to receive, for 'Your strength' here is but a designation for the Torah, as in the passage, 'The Lord will give strength unto God's people' (Psalm 29:11)" (M'chilta D'Rabbi Yishmael, Shirata 5:2).
In Psalm 29:11, “strength” is transformed from a divine wonder observed by the Israelites at the Sea, into a gift bestowed by God to the Israelites for the future. More than a source they summoned at need, God would convey God’s strength to them in Torah. The people would bear it, personally. It would be as Torah also teaches: "It is not in the heavens (that is, with God, alone), that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it" (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).
The theme became ubiquitous in Jewish thought. It found a voice in the words of an anonymous poet (9th-11thc) who wrote:
…The sea berated Moses: "Why, Moses, are you doing this to me? After all, I was created on the third day, while you were created on the sixth; I am three days older than you, and yet you wish to pass through me? Remember, Moses, that I am wiser than you. Then how dare you say: 'Divide before me!' "
The anger of Moses was kindled and he replied: "Listen to me, O sea, and heed my words! God has seen that the children of Jacob are imperilled (sic) by the enemy. So let your waters arise like a great wall, on the right and on the left, with a paved path in their midst. For He has ordained that I shall pass through your waves. Now divide before me and do not delay!"
God, Who had created the sea, now revealed Himself to it, riding on a cherub. From His mighty seat He made the earth heave and the children of the Lord, redeemed, beheld the sea’s bed. "Let us get to Sinai to hear the Law!" said the redeemed ones to Moses, the beloved, whose prayer had closed the sea, whose emissary placated His wrath. Then the Lord spoke to him from the midst of blazing fires and said to His people: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery!” 1
In the final stanza of the poem, God reveals heavenly power. Moses is vindicated. The Israelites’ faith is at a peak. They see that Sinai is their destiny for it’s there that they’ll receive “the Law,” that is, God’s strength. Finally, the poem ends with a quote from Exodus 20, where the Ten Commandments begin with the first declaration, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The linkage is intended. From bondage we are redeemed so that we may know Revelation.
There is no force in the universe that would impede the momentum God animated for the sake of the Israelites. It’s on full display in Torah, it’s told at our seder tables, and poets and liturgists, alike, have treated it as the essential moment that led our people, a treasured people, to receive their destiny.
At this season, the seder is a ritual performance that — at its best — deepens Jewish identification. Our duty is to prepare the next generation to know their heritage and their destiny; to invest them in the story that freed them from bondage and made them ready for Revelation, too. It’s incumbent upon us to show them the ways of Torah, the source of their strength. With fewer biblical signs and portents, today, our job is made more difficult. But we shouldn’t overlook obvious and virulent challenges to Jewish life, such as rising anti-Semitism and radical Islam, to remind us that Torah remains “[our] life and the length of [our] days” (Deuteronomy 30:20). Like the Israelites who sang their victory song, let us be at the peak of our faith and move from bondage to freedom, from insecurity to courage, and from despair to hope.
1. T. Carmi, The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1981), pp. 241-244
Note: “Opening section of an unrhymed narrative of Palestinian origin, which was patterned on an earlier Aramaic model. Like other hymns that celebrate Israel’s miraculous passage through the Sea of Reeds, it was intended for the liturgy of the Seventh Day of Passover.” p. 92
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.