Judaism: The Power of the 7th Day of Pesach
It is so deeply ingrained in our national consciousness that the Splitting of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptian Army occurred on the seventh day of Pesach, that it often comes as something of a surprise to discover that the Torah does not record explicitly when it occurred.
The Talmud and the Midrashim, however, are consistent about this chronology, and the Seder Olam Rabbah synthesizes several sources to give a detailed account of the Exodus. “On the 14th of Nisan the Jews slaughtered their Pesach-sacrifices in Egypt ; that was a Thursday, and that night the [Egyptian] first-borns were smitten [v. 29].
The day after the Pesach-sacrifice, which was the eve of Shabbat [i.e. Friday], they travelled from Rameses… Then from Rameses they travelled to Succoth [v. 37], and from Succoth to Etham , and from Etham to Pi-hahiroth , which is three days. On the fourth day [after the Exodus] ‘it was told to the king of Egypt that the nation had escaped’ [v. 5], and on the fifth and sixth days ‘Egypt pursued after them’ [v. 9].
On the eve of the seventh day they descended into the sea, as it says ‘there was cloud and darkness which lit up the night’ [v. 20]. At daybreak Israel came up out of the Red Sea and the Egyptians were drowned. At that moment Israel sang the Song at the Sea, as it says ‘then Moshe and the children of Israel sang…’ . That was a Thursday, and it was the final Yom Tov day of Pesach” (Seder Olam Rabbah, Chapter 5).
Naturally, this is the reason that the Talmud (Megillah 31a) decrees that the Torah-reading for the seventh day of Pesach is the section which includes the crossing of the Red Sea and the Song at the Sea – specifically Exodus 13:17-15:26, beginning with “It happened when Pharaoh sent the nation out…” and continuing until after the Song at the Red Sea, celebrating the Egyptians’ drowning in the Red Sea.
The Midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 21:8 and Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay 14:15) cites two opinions as to how we merited the awesome, revealed miracle of the Splitting of the Red Sea.
Rabbi Benaya opined that G-d split the Red Sea in the merit of Abraham our father: the Torah records that when G-d commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac, “he split the wood of the burnt-offering” (Genesis 22:3), using the verb “va-yevakka” for “split”; and 363 years later, when G-d “made the sea damp ground and the waters split” (Exodus 14:21), the Torah uses the same verb for “split”.
Rabbi Akiva opined that it was in the merit of Jacob: when Jacob slept in Beit El on his way to his uncle Laban in Haran and dreamed his famous dream of the ladder linking Heaven and earth, G-d promised him that “your seed will be as the dust of the earth, and you will burst forth westwards and eastwards, and northwards and southwards” (Genesis 28:14).
There are at least two different explanations for this. The Matanot Kehunah (commentary to Midrash Rabbah composed by Rabbi Yissachar Ber ha-Kohen Katz, Poland 16th century) picks up on the word G-d used for “burst forth” – “paratztah” – which also denotes “splitting”, portending that one day in the future the sea would split for Jacob’s descendants.
The Maharz”u (Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf Einhorn, Grodno and Vilna, died 1862) picks up on the word G-d used for “westwards” – “yamah”, literally “seawards” – portending that one day in the future Jacob’s descendants would burst forth into the sea (commentary to Sh’mot Rabbah 21:8).
In any event, G-d split the Red Sea for us in the merit of faith and self-sacrifice, whether that of Abraham or of Jacob.
The Talmud (Sotah 37a) and the Midrash (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma’el, Beshallach, Masekhet de-Vayehi 5) graphically depict the events at the shores of the Red Sea. The Twelve Tribes of Israel stood by the sea, each Tribe proclaiming: “I’m not going down into the sea first!”. While they were bickering among themselves, all frightened of taking the initiative, Nachshon son of Amminadav, a leader of the Tribe of Judah (Exodus 6:23, Numbers 1:7, Ruth 4:20, 1 Chronicles 2:10), leapt forward ahead of them all into the Red Sea.
Nachshon son of Amminadav, too, displayed unwavering courage and faith and self-sacrifice; and it was this that convinced G-d to split the Red Sea for Israel.
G-d sends us salvation and redemption in the merit of our courage and faith and self-sacrifice. But to deserve salvation and redemption, at least some of us have to jump forward, ahead of the rest of the nation, if necessary against the counsel of the leaders of the nation, in a brazen display of faith in G-d.
Let us return to Rabbi Akiva’s opinion that G-d split the Red Sea in the merit of Jacob. The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) finds an unexpected connexion between Jacob and the Splitting of the Red Sea: when Joseph dreamed his second dream – that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing to him – and related his dream to his father Jacob and brothers, “his father [Jacob] castigated him” (Genesis 37:10).
The Ba’al ha-Turim notes that the word “va-yig’ar” (“he castigated”) occurs only twice in the entire Tanach; the other occurrence is in King David’s majestically poetic depiction of the Splitting of the Red Sea: “Then He castigated the Red Sea and it became dry, and He led them through the depths as through a desert” (Psalms 106:9). The Ba’al ha-Turim concludes: “So it was in [Jacob’s] merit that it became dry; and this is the inference of ‘Israel saw the mighty hand which Hashem inflicted upon Egypt’ (Exodus 14:31) – Israel their ancestor”.
Rabbi Akiva, who opined that G-d split the Red Sea in the merit of Jacob, was the epitome of unwavering courage and faith and self-sacrifice: it was he who interpreted the command that “you shall love Hashem your G-d…with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the Shema) to mean, “even if He takes your soul” (Berachot 61b, Yerushalmi Berachot 9).
When the Romans forbade public teaching of Torah on pain of death, Rabbi Akiva defied this decree. He was eventually arrested and put to death by having his skin raked off his body with iron combs. While he was thus being tortured the sun rose, and he began reciting the Shema. His students were astonished: “Our master! Even this far?!”
Rabbi Akiva responded: “Throughout my life I was concerned with this verse ‘with all your soul’, which I interpreted to mean ‘even if He takes your soul’. I used to say: When will I ever have to opportunity to fulfil this? And now that I have the opportunity – should I not seize it?!” (Berachot 61b and Tanhuma, Ki Tavo 2).
When G-d had forged His covenant with Abraham, He promised him: “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great” (Genesis 12:2). The Talmud expounds: “‘I will make you into a great nation’ – we refer to this by saying ‘the G-d of Abraham’; ‘and I will bless you’ – we refer to this by saying ‘the G-d of Isaac; ‘and I will make your name great’ – we refer to this by saying ‘the G-d of Jacob’” (Pesachim 117b).
The name of Israel becomes great through our unwavering courage and faith in G-d and self-sacrifice for the nation and for G-d. Since it was Rabbi Akiva who, more than anyone else, epitomised these qualities, it is eminently appropriate that he would expound that the Splitting of the Red Sea was in the merit of Jacob, in whom was fulfilled G-d’s promise that “I will make your name great”.
Israel’s task in this world is to make G-d’s Name great in the world; “You are in our midst, O Hashem, and Your Name is called upon us” (Jeremiah 14:9). Countless times throughout the Tanach, the Prophets proclaim that Israel is called by G-d’s Name, and the degradation of Israel is therefore the desecration of the Name of G-d.
And the obvious corollary is that the glory of Israel is the sanctification of the Name of G-d. When He performed the magnificent miracle at the Red Sea, His Name was sanctified and glorified throughout the world. Indeed – “I will make your name great”, and He made His own Name great too.
This is the connexion between Jacob and the Splitting of the Red Sea. And this is the power of the Splitting of the Red Sea. And this is the power of unwavering courage and faith and self-sacrifice.
And this is the power of the seventh day of Pesach.