The Torah does not tell us explicitly when the Children of Israel traversed the Red Sea, but several sources (Shemot Rabbah 19:7, Seder Olam Rabbah 5 et al.) record that it happened on the seventh day after the Exodus.
This is of course the reason that our Sages decreed that on the seventh day of Pesach, the Torah-reading would be Exodus 13:17-15:26 (Megillah 31a), the passage which depicts the Splitting of the Red Sea:
“It happened when Pharaoh sent the nation out, that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, though it was short…” (Exodus 13:17).
And then the Torah drops just the tiniest, subtlest hint that, despite the jubilation of the Exodus, despite our historical, inspiring triumph over Egypt, something had gone horribly wrong. A hint so subtle that it cannot be transmitted in any translation, a hint that can easily be overlooked even in the Hebrew text itself:
“G-d led the nation in a circuitous route through the desert to the Red Sea, and the Children of Israel had ascended armed from the land of Egypt” (Exodus 13:18).
The word that the Torah uses for “armed” here is חֲמֻשִׁים; and therein lies this tiny, subtle hint.
Because grammatically, the word should have been spelt and vowelized חֲמֻשִּׁים; that is to say, with a dagesh (a dot) in the ש.
Such a minuscule difference: חֲמֻשִׁים instead of חֲמֻשִּׁים.
Yet that missing dagesh conceals a vast tragedy.
By spelling the word defectively, חֲמֻשִׁים instead of חֲמֻשִּׁים, the Torah suggests that the word חֲמֻשִׁים is derived from חָמֵשׁ, “five”. Hence not just that the Children of Israel left Egypt armed, but also that only one in five Jews left Egypt alive (Shemot Rabbah 14:3; Tanhuma, Va’eira 14 and Beshallach 1; Sechel Tov, Bo 10:31; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Pis’cha 12; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 208 et al.).
What happened to the other four-fifths?
Among the Jews in Egypt were many – way too many – who preferred to remain in Egypt.
Some had ostensibly holy motives: they knew that G-d had told their ancestor Abraham that they would be enslaved and persecuted in a land not theirs for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), and they argued that they had been in Egypt only 210 years. Therefore, they reasoned, Moshe was trying to bring the redemption ahead of its time. We had another 190 years to wait, they argued, another 190 years during which we were condemned to remain in Egypt.
They were Satmar and the Neturei Kharta of the generation. They were against Moshe and against Zionism because, according to their reasoning, G-d would lead us out of the exile in His time – a time which had not yet come – and not in Moshe’s time.
And then there were the others. The Jews who had enthusiastically adopted Egyptian idolatry, who identified as Egyptians, who had Egyptian patrons, who felt themselves to be at home in their Egyptian fatherland, and who refused to leave their “homeland” for “exile” in Israel.
They were the Reform and assimilationists of their generation. They were against Zionism because they were openly against Jewish national identity.
Between them, these Jews who – for whatever reason – refused to leave Egypt numbered some four-fifths of the Jews. And during the ninth Plague, the Plague of Darkness, those four-fifths of the Jewish nation died and were buried by their fellow-Jews.
The Plague of Darkness thus served two functions. It was both a punishment for the Egyptians, and also G-d’s opportunity to eliminate the Jewish renegades under the cover of darkness, so that the Egyptians would not witness this terrible Jewish tragedy. Because publicising such widespread Jewish treason would have constituted a terrible desecration of the Name of G-d.
And maybe this is the reason that the Torah – which was destined from the start to be translated into all languages (see Shabbat 88b), and would therefore be available for all mankind to read – did not record this embarrassing and humiliating episode explicitly.
It merely hints at the lost four-fifths of the nation. Hints at it so subtly that even a careful reader of the text – and certainly anyone who reads the Torah in translation – could not possibly derive this national disaster.
This, then, is the hidden story of Pesach.
The Exodus from Egypt served as the paradigm for the future final Redemption, the Redemption which has begun, oh-so-painfully, in our generations.
As then, so today. There are Jews who, for whatever reasons, prefer not to leave exile. For sure, there are Jews with valid reasons. And there are also Jews who are ideologically opposed to making Aliyah, Jews who are ideologically committed to remaining in exile.
Those Jews who refused to leave Egypt got what they wanted: they indeed remained in Egypt…for all time. They died in Egypt, they were buried in Egypt, their corpses remained in Egypt.
Yet no Jew was condemned to remain in Egypt. Every single Jew had the freedom to choose for himself or herself whether to remain in Egypt or to leave, whether to be part of the redemption or to attempt to deny it.
Nevertheless the time for decision eventually came. The Plague of Darkness was the time by which every Jew had to decide for him- or herself which group he or she chose to join:
To choose redemption and to live, even though those were a minority? Or to reject redemption and to die in the darkness, like the majority?
And so too today. The deadline for deciding has not yet come: every Jew in exile is still able to decide to come home to Israel and to be part of Redemption.
When will the final time for decision come? When will there no longer be any opportunity to leave the exile and come to Israel? When will disaster (chas ve-shalom) strike the exile?
– To those questions, G-d alone knows the answer.