Passover: The Final Days ”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

According to the Torah (Numbers 28:16-25), there are seven official days of Passover. In Israel, the first day and the final seventh day are sacred holidays. Between the first and last day of Passover are five non-sacred, “intermediate days,” known as “Chol ha’Moed,” חֹל־הַמּוֹעֵד. In the diaspora, the first two days are sacred holidays that are followed by four intermediary days and the last two sacred days of Passover.

The festival of Passover celebrates two great historical events. The first is the triumphant exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt. The second, of course, is the crossing of the Red Sea.

The Israelites left Egypt on the first day of Passover, the 15th of Nissan. On the seventh day of Passover (22 Nissan) the sea split before the Israelites who were being chased by the Egyptians.

After the Israelites emerged safely from the sea, the walls of water returned to their normal state, drowning the Egyptians. It was at that point that both Moses and Miriam sang their historic songs of tribute, praising the Al-mighty G-d for the miracles and the peoples’ great salvation.

The splitting of the Red Sea is known in Hebrew as “Kree’at Yam Suf,קְרִיעַת יַם־סוּף, which literally means the “tearing” of the sea.

The question is asked, why was it necessary for G-d to cause the Egyptians to chase after the Israelites and drown them in the sea? The Israelites could have simply fled Egypt and gone directly to the Holy Land without crossing the sea. Why didn’t the Egyptians, who were virtually paralyzed by the death of the firstborn, realize that all was lost, that G-d was fighting for the Israelites, and that there was no chance of them ever bringing the former slaves back to Egypt? Yet, for some reason, the Egyptians felt compelled to chase after the Israelites and bring them back to Egypt. And why did the Israelites act as if they were lost in the wilderness so that the Egyptians would chase after them?

Some commentators suggest that the splitting of the sea was a necessary part of redemption, not so much for the Egyptians, but for the Israelites. The idea of קְרִיעָה, of ripping or tearing, is well known from the custom of rending clothing in times of death and mourning. In Jewish tradition, the seven close relatives of the deceased rend their garments as a sign of mourning.

Another instance of rending clothes is cited in I Samuel 15:28. When King Saul failed to fulfill the instructions of G-d at the behest of the prophet Samuel to kill the Amalekite King Agag, Samuel told Saul that he had lost the monarchy. In desperation, Saul grabbed Samuel’s garment, ripping it. Samuel responds, saying: קָרַע השׁם אֶת מַמְלְכוּת יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, וּנְתָנָהּ לְרֵעֲךָ הַטּוֹב מִמֶּךָּ, G-d has torn the Kingdom of Israel from you this day and given it to one of your neighbors–to one better than you.

The concept of tearing and rending implies a complete break. Thus, once the person passes, death is final, there’s no going back. Similarly, with Saul, now that the kingship is taken from him, there is no recourse or return.

And so it was with the ancient Israelites. For them to truly appreciate their freedom, it was necessary for them to completely detach themselves from their previous experiences in Egypt. They could not be nostalgic about the “good old days” of Egypt or the “good old times” of Joseph, nor could they flourish with the constant memories of torture, the backbreaking work and the death of their children that they experienced in Egypt.

It was now necessary for the Children of Israel to focus on their future in the new land that they would soon inhabit, a land flowing with milk and honey where they would raise their children in peace and tranquility and eventually build a kingdom under Kings David and Solomon that would rival those of any of the ancient kingdoms. Not only would the people in the Promised Land succeed in their physical, economic and material accomplishments, they would far surpass any of the other contemporary nations in their spiritual and moral accomplishments.

For that, the people needed to tear themselves away from their past. That’s what “Kree’at Yam Suf,” the splitting of the sea was all about. They no longer had to worry about the Egyptians. They needed to look forward to planting their vineyards and fig trees, beginning their great mission of transmitting the word of G-d to all the peoples of the world.

That is the reason for the great celebration of שְׁבִיעִי שֶׁל פֶּסַח, the seventh day of Passover,and the reason for the abundant rejoicing on the final days of Passover.

May you be blessed.

Chag Kasher V’samayach.