The seventh day of Pesah, shvi’i shel pesah, is a robust and meaningful moment in the Jewish calendar. In the narrative of the Exodus, shvi’i shel pesah is the moment when the Children of Yisrael enter the split sea. This year I have been repeatedly asking myself the question: when are we liberated? When we slaughter the pesah offering and eat it with matzah and maror within our sealed homes? When we emerge from our homes and begin to leave Mitzrayim? When we make it to the shore of the sea? When we enter the sea? When we emerge from the sea? When we enter the wilderness? When we wander? When we enter the land? When we conquer the land? The more we plumb the depths of the question, the more elusive any answers become – how perfectly appropriate for Passover, a festival of questions!
On shvi’i shel pesah, as is only fitting, we recite Shirat Ha’Yam (the Song of the Sea). Yet, rather than simply read the song itself, we read from the beginning of Parashat Be’shallah and conclude after the Song of the Sea. Following the plagues, during which God hardened Pharaoh’s heart again and again, and during which Pharaoh made his own heart heavy, there is one last time in which God hardens Pharaoh’s heart – after the people have left because Pharaoh told them to go as a result of the final plague, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart to inspire him to pursue the people. The Torah says:
It was told to the king of Mitzrayim that the people fled; so the heart of Pharaoh flipped, and his servants, to the people, and they said: What is this that we have done, when we sent-off Yisrael from serving us? (Exodus 14:5)
At that point the chariots of readied and the pursuit begins. The phrase, “what is this that we have done” is potent with fear and uncertainty. The decision seemed correct at the time, in the face of death and destruction, but now there had been a few days passed. According to tradition, the verse quoted above happens on the fourth day after the death of the firstborn. Now that time has passed, the fear of an uncertain future burdens Pharaoh, and rather than paralyze him the fear compels him to hasty action. Meanwhile, as the continue to make their way to the sea they are unaware of their being pursued until they reach the sea and lift up their eyes and see Pharaoh and his chariots are right behind them. The Torah says:
…they became exceedingly afraid and the Children of Yisrael cried out to Hashem. They said to Moshe: Were there really no graves in Mitzrayim that you have taken us to due in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us, to bring us out from Mitzrayim? (Exodus 14:10-11)
Ramban raises a fascinating contradiction inherent in this verse. He says:
It does not make sense that humans who are crying out to God to save them would then doubt the salvation which God did for them and say it would have been better for them to have not been saved.
While he goes on in his comment to explain that, in his opinion, there must be two distinct groups – one group which is believing and one group which is doubting – the basic question he raises here is incredibly profound.
It seems to me that a deeper truth is illuminated in this moment of tension in the parallelism of the voice of Pharaoh and the voice of the people. It cannot go unnoticed that they both respond identically! “mah zot, what is this?!” Both Pharaoh and the people express a deep fear of the uncertainty of the unknown. Pharaoh will only come to be liberated through destruction because his fear leads him to continually subjugate others. However, the people’s fear is potentially leading them into willful subjugation at Pharaoh’s hand.
Perhaps in this realization of the parity between Pharaoh’s sentiment and that of the people, we learn something deep about liberation. Liberation is not about a moment in time, or even a reflection on past experiences. Rather, true liberation is not about time or place; it is a removal of the fear which keeps us stuck in narrowness. Wherever we are, as long as we sit in fear, that is mitzrayim, that is a narrow place.
True liberation comes when we put the right foot forward on our journey away from fear.