Taking the Active Steps Towards Salvation

For many people, the favorite part of the Passover prayers is the Torah reading on the seventh day of the holiday.

The song “Az Yashir,” (the Song of the Sea), is a celebratory hymn that the Jews sang after they crossed through the Reed Sea safely and watched the Egyptian army drown. It is recited from the Torah in a unique melody compared to every other reading during the year, and it is the only time that the entire congregation stands for Torah-reading, other than the recitation of the Ten Commandments and the conclusion of each of the five books.

Just as the Haggadah that was read on the first night of Passover directs us to “show himself as if he had left Egypt,” everyone in the synagogue does not simply sit and listen to the words of the Torah, but takes an active step of standing while they listen to the song.

וּבְכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר, חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁלֹּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל, אֵלָא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל–שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְאוֹתָנוּ, הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם–לְמַעַן, הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ” (דברים ו,כג. In every generation, a person is obligated to show himself as if he had left Egypt:  for He did not redeem only our ancestors, but even us as well, as it is written “And He brought us out from thence, that He might bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers” (Deuteronomy 6:23).

The participation of standing for the song is communal today, just as the song was sung by the entire congregation over 3,000 years ago.

א  אָז יָשִׁיר-מֹשֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לַיהוָה, וַיֹּאמְרוּ,  {ר}  לֵאמֹר:  {ס}  אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה כִּי-גָאֹה גָּאָה,  {ס}  סוּס  {ר}  וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם.  {ס} Exodus 15:1 Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.

The fact that the Jews were appreciative for their salvation is understandable, but also shocking that such emotion appears during this Song of the Sea for the first time in the bible. Throughout the story of the ten plagues and leaving Egypt, all the way until the shores of the Reed Sea, the Jews mostly complained to Moses; they certainly did not say ‘thank you’ to him nor exalt God.

11 Then they said to Moses, “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? Why have you dealt with us in this way, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the word that we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. (Exodus 14:11-12)

The constant actions of Moses during the story were in contrast to the persistent inaction of the Children of Israel. The Jews were content to stay where they were, to have all of their basic needs taken care of for them, whether food to eat or graves in which to be buried. The Jews were as much physical slaves to the Egyptians as they were to their own complacency. They had accepted their misery, and angry that Moses had the temerity to break the status quo.


The Crossing of the Red Sea
by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

I will suggest here that the Song by the Sea was the third and pivotal step in the Jewish people taking action to break the weight of inertia and achieving salvation; not just freedom beyond the borders of Egypt, but of the slave mentality as well.

The First Steps: The Tenth Plague

The streak was on.

Nine times in a row, God had brought a plague onto the Egyptian people. In chapter after chapter, the bible recounts how God inflicted pain on land and sea, on animals and fields, yet all of the while, the Jews were in a protective bubble. They were not impacted by the plagues nor asked to participate in any way.

But at the announcement of the final tenth plague, the bible tells us that it was time for the Jewish people to take action.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֕ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה כְּשַׁ֨לְּח֔וֹ כָּלָ֕ה גָּרֵ֛שׁ יְגָרֵ֥שׁ אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּֽה׃ דַּבֶּר־נָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וְיִשְׁאֲל֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ ׀ מֵאֵ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ וְאִשָּׁה֙ מֵאֵ֣ת רְעוּתָ֔הּ כְּלֵי־כֶ֖סֶף וּכְלֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃ וַיִּתֵּ֧ן יְהוָ֛ה אֶת־חֵ֥ן הָעָ֖ם בְּעֵינֵ֣י מִצְרָ֑יִם גַּ֣ם ׀ הָאִ֣ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֗ה גָּד֤וֹל מְאֹד֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּעֵינֵ֥י עַבְדֵֽי־פַרְעֹ֖ה וּבְעֵינֵ֥י הָעָֽם׃

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all.  Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.” The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people. (Exodus 11:1-3)

If God was able to do everything on behalf of the Jewish people, why did He want them to take the jewels of the Egyptians? He could have just given the Jews riches or transferred the wealth to the Jews.

God knew that the Jews had a complacent mindset after hundreds of years of slavery. He needed them to break free of that inertia and confront their oppressors. To do that, He commanded the Jewish people to stand up and take back the wages and goods that had been taken from them while they worked as slaves for so long. Step 1: confront the oppressor.

Yet the single step would not be enough to earn redemption nor break the psychology of slavery, so God commanded the Jews to take additional action.

Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house: And if the household be too little for the lamb, let him and his neighbour next unto his house take it according to the number of the souls; every man according to his eating shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats: And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat itAnd they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; his head with his legs, and with the purtenance thereof. 10 And ye shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire. 11 And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the Lord‘s passover. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord13 And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. 14 And this day shall be unto you for a memorial; and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord throughout your generations; ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance for ever. (Exodus 12: 3-14)

God commanded the Jews to do something out-of-the-ordinary. Each family was to take a lamb into their houses for three days, and then slaughter it and paint its blood onto the outside doorposts of the house while they devoured the roasted meat throughout the night. Quite a bizarre farewell to Egypt.

Some biblical commentators believed that sheep were sacred to the Egyptians and that slaughtering them and painting their blood onto the outside of the house and eating them was a detestable offense to the Egyptians. If so, this action would be a continuation of the first step above: confront your enemy first by taking physical goods (jewels), and then by destroying their spiritual world (sacred sheep).

But the text reads differently. The bible writes that the blood is for God to see (“when I see the blood”), not the Egyptians. The blood on the doorways is therefore not designed as an insult to the Egyptians, but an act of affirmation that the Jews believed in God, and that God will protect them. For nine plagues God protected the Jews without their active participation, but for the final plague, the Jews needed to participate in their salvation. Step 2: show your belief.

The Next Step: Entering the Sea

The communal belief was short lived. As described above, the Jews quickly reverted to their old habits as they verbally attacked Moses for bringing them out of Egypt to face death at the hands of the Egyptian army at the shore of the Reed Sea.

And Moses similarly fell into the old trap of assuming that God would do everything for His people and called out:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֣ה אֶל־הָעָם֮ אַל־תִּירָאוּ֒ הִֽתְיַצְב֗וּ וּרְאוּ֙ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂ֥ה לָכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

יְהוָ֖ה יִלָּחֵ֣ם לָכֶ֑ם וְאַתֶּ֖ם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן׃

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The LORD will battle for you; you hold your peace!” (Exodus 14:13-14)

Moses tried to allay the fear of the Jews and told them to sit back and watch God save them. But God was not pleased with the words of Moses.

The drama of the story is heightened, as the Torah reading takes a pause just after Moses makes his declaration. When the Torah reader takes up the reading again at the next aliyah, we imagine that the dramatic splitting of the sea is about to happen. But it doesn’t.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. (Exodus 14:15)

God surprisingly questions Moses proclamation and instead calls for the Jewish people to literally take the next steps forward in another act of redemption.

The Midrash says that the Jewish people were frightened and reluctant to march ahead. But a prince from the tribe of Judah, Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into the sea undeterred, and the waters finally split and saved him from drowning (Sotah 37a).

Nachshon’s actions can be viewed as a continuation of the important second step: show your belief, as an individual. Do not be lulled into the prevalent community attitude of letting the leaders or someone else take action. Do not sit and wait, as even a solitary person’s actions, coupled with a leader’s (Moses) prayers to realize God’s vision, can help redeem everyone.

Rabbi Aaron Kampf of Manchester, England balances the notion of individual action versus the will of God. In recounting the story of Queen Esther, Rabbi Kampf notes that Esther’s uncle charged her to speak up on behalf of the Jewish people to the king.

יג  וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר:  אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים. Megillat Esther Chapter 4: 13 Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: ‘Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.
יד  כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת. 14 For if thou altogether holdest thy peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but thou and thy father’s house will perish; and who knoweth whether thou art not come to royal estate for such a time as this?’

The speech that Mordecai gave to Esther was not a pep talk of “you can do it; we’re all counting on you!” but one of humility. God has a plan, and you can either play or part or disappear into history because salvation will come from somewhere else.

An individual’s action will become successful or unsuccessful based on the will of God. A person should not be so self-centered as to believe that they alone can change the world. But as Rabbi Tarfon says in Pirkei Avot 2:16:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה

You are not expected to complete the task, but neither are you free to avoid it.

A person must be involved and take actions in partnership with God.

The Final Step: Gratitude

The Jews were finally free of the physical and mental slavery when they sang “Az Yashir” on the other side of the sea. They had confronted their enemies and showed their belief in God. They witnessed their Egyptian masters completely defeated.

However, one more step was required to become free: the expression of gratitude.

The actions that the Jewish people had taken in their salvation were all commanded by God: take the jewels; slaughter the lamb; paint the doorposts; move forward; etc. In many ways, the Jews had traded masters: the Egyptian taskmaster for God.

But on the safe dry ground they understood that the calls of complaints to their leader Moses were empty. Those were not steps forward but merely instinctive reactions, animalistic. Now, they decided for themselves to thank God.

Noble peace prize winner Elie Wiesel believed deeply in the action of expressing gratitude. He believed that gratitude was the ultimate expression of humanity:

“Gratitude is a word that I cherish.
Gratitude is what defines the humanity of the human being.
No one is as capable of expressing gratitude as one who has escaped the kingdom of night.”

And as the Children of Israel and Moses sang in unison about their gratitude to God, the transformation of a people was realized. They no longer were physically or mentally constrained by the will of Egyptian masters, broken of free will like cattle. They were on their way to participate actively in the teachings of their God and the God of their fathers.

Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik wrote: “While not all are loved by God in the same way, we are all held accountable for our actions, and are rewarded for a life well lived.” (Azure No. 19, “God’s Beloved: A Defense of Choseness“)’ Our ability to confront the wrongs, to demonstrate our faith and to be thankful for God’s gifts are key ingredients to the story of Passover and how we live our lives.


Related First.One.Through articles:

Shabbat Hagadol at the Third Hurva Synagogue, 2010

A Seder in Jerusalem with Liberal Friends

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