The last days of Pesach: keeping faith amid a sea of uncertainty


To us, the departure from Egypt looks like a victorious conclusion to centuries of slavery and the story of the Ten Plagues. Broken by the death of their firstborn, the Egyptians pressed their wealth on the Jews and begged them to leave. The Jews left in triumph; not even a dog barked at them as they left (Exodus 12).

But God had another trick up His sleeve. The Egyptians regretted letting their Jewish slaves go and chased after them to haul them back to work. The Jews were marooned between the Red Sea and the approaching Egyptians until God miraculously split the sea; dry land appeared between two walls of water enabling the Jews to flee. The oncoming Egyptians were drowned as the walls of water crashed back down (Exodus 14).

It makes a great story. But in his Otsar Hayirah, the Chasidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslav (1772 – 1810) offers a deeper insight into the Red Sea miracle (Teshuvat Hashanah, Pesach Sefirah v'Shavuot 71).

Rabbi Nachman demonstrates that water is a biblical symbol for da'at (knowledge): "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Habakkuk 2:14). This means perhaps that knowledge is not static, but a moving, restless thing like the waters of the sea. Our knowledge of the world and of ideas evolves and changes, adopting new forms and positions. In Hebrew da'at also has a connotation of an intimate relationship (Genesis 4:1), developing through experience and challenge, nurtured by the intellect but manifesting in the heart.

Land represents a different concept altogether; in Psalms 37:3, we are encouraged to "rest in the land and nourish emunah [faith]". Attaining faith in divine goodness is like coming out of a heaving sea on to dry land and feeling reassured by standing on a solid, immutable surface

Attaining faith in divine goodness is like coming out of a heaving sea on to dry land

We can understand these two ideas as different facets of our relationship with God. Knowledge of God is a precious thing, but it is dynamic and can deteriorate if we misunderstand or neglect our relationship with Him.

True faith in God, however, is the foundation of our relationship with Him. It grounds us in a worldview which reassures us that everything has divine meaning and purpose, however painful and pointless it may feel. It is not subject to the vicissitudes of human reasoning and feelings, but is simply there, underpinning every experience, realisation and emotion that we undergo.

As the Jews stood on the shores of the Red Sea, they beheld the Egyptians racing after them to bring them back to Egypt. This was not a moment for seeking da'at. It was incomprehensible as a denouement of the divine plan, a baffling, crushing disappointment. The Jews had to reach down through the surging tumult of their emotions to a bedrock of faith at this most testing time.

They achieved this with such power and clarity that their spiritual state was projected on their physical surroundings and warped nature itself. The sea miraculously split and retreated, just like their doubts and reasoning were cast aside at this critical moment to reveal an unwavering, unshakeable trust in God. And this was their salvation.

The Egyptians lacked this remarkable trait. Their very pursuit of the Jews showed that they were fickle and unstable, enslaved by every fad and whim that tugged at their hearts. So the waters crashed back over them and they perished.

The second-century history Seder Olam Rabbah calculates that God miraculously split the Red Sea for the Jews and drowned their Egyptian pursuers on the seventh day from their departure from Egypt (chapter 5).

If the Exodus marked the first day of the Jews' new life, the splitting of the Red Sea on the seventh day was somehow a Sabbath moment for them. Just as our Sabbath sums up and sanctifies the previous six days of the week, so the miracle of the Red Sea concluded and consecrated the process of leaving Egypt, adding emunah as a foundation to da'at and life itself.

How fitting, then, is the text's reference to the Jews' emunah as they began their song of praise after the Red Sea subsided (Exodus 14:31): "Vaya'aminu", and they "trusted" in God and in Moses His servant. This was the true triumph of the Exodus and it has sustained us as a people ever since.

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