Chag Samei’ach everyone and welcome to this Seventh Day of Pesach morning service.
I hope that you have all been enjoying Pesach despite the restrictions imposed due to the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Seventh Day Pesach morning service is marked by two distinct elements: the chanting of the songs recorded in the Torah, in the Book of Exodus, that were sung by the Israelites after crossing through the divided Sea of Reeds on dry land, and the Yizkor service in remembrance of our loved ones who have died.
Before we turn to the Torah, I will pause to reflect on the significance of these elements for us today – but first we begin our service by singing:
Hal’lu, Hal’lu, Hal’lu-Yah! [Praise! Praise! Praise! Praise the Eternal!]
So, Pesach is drawing to a close. Both, the Torah and the Haggadah recited at the Seder, urge us to identify with the Exodus story. Have we found ourselves doing this over the past week?
In my Pesach morning sermon, I suggested that as we endure the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have something to learn about endurance from the slaves who endured slavery for hundreds of years.
So, have we something to learn from the story of their liberation from slavery?
Liberation is such a powerful word. The thought of freedom is so uplifting. What about the experience? The account we find in the Torah suggests that just as slavery imposed unbearable hardship, suffering and anguish, freedom entailed its terrors, too. The terrors of the great unknown beyond the confinement of the house of bondage. No sooner had the slaves fled Egypt, then with the Egyptians in hot pursuit behind them, they encountered a barrier: The Sea of Reeds. The Torah‘s account suggests that it only took a miracle wave of Moses’ staff for the waters to part. By contrast, the rabbinic versions found in the midrash suggest that it took human courage: in one commentary, the waters didn’t part until one brave individual, Nachshon ben Amminadav ‘leapt first into the sea and plunged into its waves’. Another suggests that it wasn’t until the people were wading in the waters up to their noses, that the waters parted.
The moment of panic and terror as the slaves faced the sea is beautifully captured in Ruth Sohn’s poem, ‘The Song of Miriam’, included in the draft Shabbat morning service of the new Liberal Judaism prayer book. Let me quote a few lines from it:
In a moment of panic
My eyes go blind.
Can I take a step without knowing a
Will I falter
Will I fall
Will the ground sink away from under me?
The song still unformed –
How can I sing?
To take the first step –
To sing a new song –
Is to close one’s eyes
into unknown waters
for a moment knowing nothing risking
But then to discover
The waters are friendly
The ground is firm.
And the song –
the song rises again.
Out of my mouth
come words lifting the wind.
Once the fugitive slaves had crossed the sea, they faced the terrors of the barren desert, where water and food were in such short supply. Nothing evokes freedom better than the uncharted wilderness and nothing is more terrifying.
And then, there is the underside of liberation: The human cost incurred when tyranny is defeated. Throughout history, it has only been on rare occasions that an authoritarian social order has been toppled peacefully – think of the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – after all, those in power want to hold onto their power. And so, too, in the struggle against Egypt, three thousand years earlier. The Torah recounts that it took ten plagues to bring Egypt to its knees – but there was one more blow to come – the drowning of Pharaoh’s chariot-riding army as the waters came crashing down upon them. The songs of triumph led by Moses and Miriam praised the Eternal One for finally defeating Egypt, but significantly, rabbinic reflection on their exaltation, expresses a very different Divine perspective. We read in the midrash:
At that time the ministering angels wanted to sing a song of praise to the Holy One, ever to be Blessed; but the Holy One ever to be Blessed restrained them, saying: “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you would sing before Me!”
And so, during the Seder, when reciting the ten plagues one by one, we dip our little finger in the cup of the fruit of the vine, and diminish our cup of joy, by spilling a droplet for each plague.
It feels uncomfortable to be chanting these exultant songs of triumph over a stricken enemy, however oppressive, during a regular seventh day Pesach morning service. This year, as the death toll of the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of abating yet, it feels excruciating. People die every day across the world, of course, when there isn’t a pandemic. Indeed, on average over 153,000 people die every day – that is 56 million people every year. But this year, this moment that we are living through is not average. Most people – excluding, doctors and nurses, religious ministers and funeral directors – do not usually encounter death, unless it affects them personally: a loved one, a friend, a fellow congregant. The coronavirus crisis has meant that all of us are being made aware of death on a daily basis, as the evening news presents us with the gruesome figures. And behind the statistics, we know that each death represents a unique, irreplaceable individual. And so, we cannot speak of death right now except in hushed tones.
And then, like the slaves facing the sea, we don’t know what will happen next. We are afraid for ourselves and for our loved ones. And the only good thing about the fear we feel is that, hopefully, it will strengthen our resolve to maintain social distancing and keep safe for as long as is necessary.
So, what should we do with the songs of Moses and Miriam? However uncomfortable they may make us feel during this exceptional time of the coronavirus pandemic, in acknowledgement of our history, and what it took for ancestors to be free, we will still include them in this Seventh Day Pesach service.
And then we will conclude – perhaps with a greater sense of immediacy this year – with Yizkor, the memorial service. The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that life is finite; that our loved ones will die one day; that we will die one day. We might wonder why we need to be reminded of the reality of death during a festival that is supposed to be a celebration? Perhaps, so that we may pause during our celebration to drink deeply from our cup of joy, appreciate our many blessings and value life with more intensity. There is also a lesson to be learnt from this conjunction of joy and sorrow from the opposite perspective: that at times like this coronavirus crisis, when we are being forced to drink deeply from the cup of sorrow, we should also pause to acknowledge the joys of life all around us, displayed in the beauties of nature, in the kindness and generosity of strangers, and in the loving gestures of our families and friends and neighbours. The Hebrew word for life, chayyim, is plural; it encompasses everything that it is possible to experience. Just as, on this Seventh Day of Pesach we acknowledge death, let us awaken to a new day tomorrow, and even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, give thanks for life.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
7th Day Pesach Morning Service
15 April 2020 – 21 Nisan 5780
B’shallach, Exodus 15:1-21. ↑
Mechilta to B’shallach, Sh’mot/Ex. 14:22. ↑
Sh’mot Rabbah 21:10. ↑
Siddur Shirah Chadashah (‘Siddur of a New Song’), p. 16a/b. The name, is a quotation from the g’ulah/redemption blessing in ‘The Sh’ma and its blessings’ section that is a feature of evening and morning services. ↑
See the continuation of B’shallach, Sh’mot/Ex. 15:22-17:7. ↑
Recounted in Exodus chapters 7-12. ↑
Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 10b. ↑