The origins of Pesach lie, according to anthropologists, in the nomadic springtime celebration of the birth of lambs. The book of Exodus absorbs the festival into Judaism as a commemoration of the exodus from Egypt – hence its meaning as a celebration of liberation and freedom from oppression. Told and retold at each Seder, the story has become both part of Jewish autobiography and universally paradigmatic. It’s freighted with the urgency expressed by Franz Kafka – an archetypal Jew of modern times – in his parable My Destination: ‘Away from here, away from here.’
This tone of insistence – on motion over direction – is captured in Rabbinic Literature. In an evocative scene in the book of Exodus, Moses and the Children of Israel have reached the apparently unpassable waters of the Reed Sea*; they hear the sound of Pharaoh’s chariots coming to stop them and return them to slavery. In the early centuries of the Common Era, the Rabbis offered a vivid insight, visualizing the dramatic scene for themselves. The people say: ‘Let’s go back. Slavery in Egypt is better than death at the hands of the Egyptians.’ Moses holds his ground and calls on G-d. The Rabbis then hear G-d responding to Moses: ‘There’s a time for a long prayer and there’s a time for a short prayer. Now’s the time for a very short prayer. Tell them “Vayisa’u. Go forward.”’
Rabbinic reflection on the crisis by the Reed Sea goes further. The Talmud records Rabbi Meir imagining the tribes squabbling over who would have the honor of being first into the sea. However, Rabbi Judah, the realist, says to Rabbi Meir: That’s not what happened at all; each tribe was unwilling to be first to enter the sea – until Nakhshon son of Amminadav waded in.
Only when he was fully committed – up to his soul, suggests the midrash – did the waters part. What we’re hearing is a second-century reading of a much older text. But that doesn’t diminish the insight: nearly two thousand years ago, Jews were immersed in the historical narrative, finding in it reflections of contemporary experience. We’re in mortal danger. Go forward. As my grandson Oliver explained to me – repeating the same exegetical process – you have to stop talking and act. You have to take the plunge. Get in up to your neck because that’s the very nature of our story and our relationship to the Divine. The beginning of the collective journey, the journey of a people, is riveted to the Jewish consciousness and it’s the essence of Pesach.
Being Jewish Today: Confronting the Real Issues by Rabbi Tony Bayfield is published by Bloomsbury Continuum and available in paperback now.
*The Hebrew is Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds, not Sea of Red.