The relationship between the first days of Yom Tov and the last days of Yom Tov on Pesach are somewhat unique relative to Succos1. Whereas on Succos the final day(s) of Yom Tov is very clearly a separate holiday — Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah — the last day(s) of Pesach seem to resume the very same celebration of the first days. Yet, when we consider that we celebrate the Exodus on the first day(s), it seems odd to recommence this celebration a number of days later after the Exodus has already come and gone. The solution to this problem, of course, lies in the fact that on the second day(s) of Pesach we actually celebrate kriyas yam suf, the splitting of the sea, as the last stage, so to speak, of the Exodus. Indeed, it was only seven days after leaving Egypt that the Jewish nation crossed the sea, and so we celebrate this event in stride with when it occurred.
Considering all the above, it is quite odd that on the final day of Pesach in the Diaspora we read the following as the kriyas ha’Torah:
וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם־סוּף וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל־מִדְבַּר־שׁוּר וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת־יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא־מָצְאוּ מָיִם׃ וַיָּבֹאוּ מָרָתָה וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה כִּי מָרִים הֵם עַל־כֵּן קָרָא־שְׁמָהּ מָרָה׃ וַיִּלֹּנוּ הָעָם עַל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַה־נִּשְׁתֶּה׃ וַיִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָה וַיּוֹרֵהוּ יְהוָה עֵץ וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ אֶל־הַמַּיִם וַיִּמְתְּקוּ הַמָּיִם שָׁם שָׂם לוֹ חֹק וּמִשְׁפָּט וְשָׁם נִסָּהוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אִם־שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע לְקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְהַיָּשָׁר בְּעֵינָיו תַּעֲשֶׂה וְהַאֲזַנְתָּ לְמִצְותָיו וְשָׁמַרְתָּ כָּל־חֻקָּיו כָּל־הַמַּחֲלָה אֲשֶׁר־שַׂמְתִּי בְמִצְרַיִם לֹא־אָשִׂים עָלֶיךָ כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה רֹפְאֶךָ׃
And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water. And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter. Therefore the name of it was called Marah. And the people murmured against Moses, saying: ‘What shall we drink?’ And he cried unto the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there He proved them; and He said: ‘If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His eyes, and wilt give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians; for I am the LORD that healeth thee.’
Why on earth do we read this story on the last day of Pesach? This is the first question we shall be dealing with herein.
“When Israel Came Forth”
As is known, there are various chapters of Tehillim that relate to the Exodus and Egypt. One such chapter is found in Hallel and is especially apropos considering we recite Hallel throughout Pesach. Let us then examine what it is, exactly, that Dovid HaMelech had to say about yetzias mitzraim:
בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם בֵּית יַעֲקֹב מֵעַם לֹעֵז׃ הָיְתָה יְהוּדָה לְקָדְשׁוֹ יִשְׂרָאֵל מַמְשְׁלוֹתָיו׃ הַיָּם רָאָה וַיָּנֹס הַיַּרְדֵּן יִסֹּב לְאָחוֹר׃ הֶהָרִים רָקְדוּ כְאֵילִים גְּבָעוֹת כִּבְנֵי־צֹאן׃ מַה־לְּךָ הַיָּם כִּי תָנוּס הַיַּרְדֵּן תִּסֹּב לְאָחוֹר׃ הֶהָרִים תִּרְקְדוּ כְאֵילִים גְּבָעוֹת כִּבְנֵי־צֹאן׃ מִלִּפְנֵי אָדוֹן חוּלִי אָרֶץ מִלִּפְנֵי אֱלוֹהַּ יַעֲקֹב׃ הַהֹפְכִי הַצּוּר אֲגַם־מָיִם חַלָּמִישׁ לְמַעְיְנוֹ־מָיִם׃
When Israel came forth out of Egypt, The house of Jacob from a people of a strange language; Judah became His sanctuary, Israel His dominion. The sea saw it, and fled; The Jordan turned away. The mountains skipped like rams, The hills like young sheep. For what, O sea, do you run? Jordan, do you turn away? The mountains, that you skip like rams?; The hills, like young sheep? Tremble, the earth, at the presence of the Lord, At the presence of the God of Jacob; Who turned the rock into a pool of water, The flint into a fountain of waters.
Naturally, if ever there were words less likely for people to think about, it is words put to a tune. Of course, this is a chapter of Tehillim that a typical Jew has recited countless times in his or her life but very likely never thought about. What should strike one right away about this chapter of Tehillim, however, is how poor of a description of yetzias mitzraim it is for a chapter of Tehillim that begins with the words betzais yisrael mi’mitzraim.
What is going on here, and how are we to understand this seemingly rather confused chapter of Tehillim about the Exodus? This is the second question we shall be dealing with.
Children & Questions
Let us now turn our attention to the seder night itself. There are a number of themes that run throughout the seder. Amongst the expected themes would be slavery, freedom, redemption, royalty, and thanksgiving to God. This is all borne out through things like leaning, the cups of wine, the matzah, the marror, and so on. There are, however, two rather unexpected themes that run throughout the seder as well: children and questions. After all, the Biblical obligation of the seder is based on the words “v’higadetah l’vincha,” “and you shall instruct your son.” Of course, things don’t stop there. There are four sons listed in the Haggadah. The Torah begins to explain the obligation of the seder with the phrase “when your children will ask.” We introduce the pesach, matzah, and maror by asking “What is this?” There is the famous song “Who Knows One?”, and, of course, the even more famous Mah Nishtanah. Many more examples abound. The themes of children and questions are very clearly inseparable from the seder.
The obvious question, though, is why this is the case. Surely, one would have thought that a better time to focus on children and education would be on Shavuos, when we celebrate the actual giving of the Torah. It is not at all obvious that, instead, the themes of children and questioning would be intrinsically linked to Pesach. This, then, is the third and final question we shall be dealing with herein.
Our Father, Our King
We shall now begin to answer our questions.
A Jew’s relationship with God is exceptionally complicated. Needless to say, maintaining any sort of relationship with a Being that you cannot perceive with any of the senses is difficult enough — but even within an established relationship with God there is a duality that is difficult to internalize. This is because God is Avinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King. God is both a parental, loving figure, and a ruler, dictating, seemingly indifferent figure as well.
It is crucial, then, to understand the following: While we generally assume that the Exodus from Egypt was a movement from slavery to freedom, know, in fact, that, as Jews, this is not necessarily the case. Did we not leave being slaves to Pharaoh to become slaves to God?! For better or worse the modern Western notion of “freedom” is not at all what we obtained when we left Egypt many years ago. Rather, we left being beholden to Pharaoh to being beholden to God.
The better way to view yetzias mitzraim than as a shift from slavery to freedom, is as a shift from slavery to being children. The emphasis on children on the seder night is predicated on the fact that we are all children of God. We are not obligated (only) to educate children on the seder, but to first and foremost identify as children. The prominent role of children at the seder is not just that they are the future, and the continuation of tradition — this idea would surely fit better on Shavuos — rather, on Pesach, we put children front and center in order to remind ourselves that God who is our King and Master, and to whom we are slaves, is also our Father, to whom we are children.
Indeed, one of the key differences between an employee, servant, or slave and a child is the latter’s inquisitive nature. While a servant or slave will almost never ask “Why?” is response to a request to perform a certain task, a child almost always will. Parents must put up with the constant chiming of “Why?, Why?, Why?” from their children because children are by nature curious beings. To be sure, curiosity and questioning is the hallmark of a great Jew — specifically of a Jew who identifies as a child of God.
Children and questions being dominant themes of the seder are actually as important, logical, and natural as the drinking of the four cups of wine or the eating of the matzah. Yes, we are surely slaves to God, but we are not only slaves! We are also children! And, as children, we are full of questions! To be a child of God means to have questions, and to have questions is to see yourself as the child of God. After all, the reason why an employee, servant, or slave does not question their assigned task is because they are not truly invested in it. At the end of the day, the employee does not much care about the final outcome. Any reason for why a particular task must be performed makes little difference to the servant. As children of God, however, we are full of curiosity and care. One cares about things he or she is invested in, and, once more, one is invested in things he or she cares about. Yetzias mitzraim, the revelation of God in nature, and the connection and binding of our great nation to Him is, of course, something that we should be deeply connected to, and invested in greatly. We are insatiably curious! Being God’s children means that we are invested in God’s universe and desire to understand it. This is the perspective and mindset that Pesach — and specifically the seder — comes to set us in.
Psalm 114: “For What?”
If we turn our attention back to Psalm 114, two words now stand out amongst the rest: “מַה־לְּךָ”. This most beautiful perek of Tehillim is the story of the entirety of history revolving around the words “מַה־לְּךָ”, “for what reason?”, “why?”. Events occur all the time, starting with the splitting of the sea and the Exodus, but not at all ending there. This chapter of Tehillim poetically refers to all events of the world, but Dovid HaMelech wants to know why things happen. Why did the sea flee? Why did the mountains dance? Why does nature exist in the way that it does? Dovid HaMelech asks “For what, O sea, do you run? Jordan, do you turn away? The mountains, that you skip like rams?; The hills, like young sheep?” and answers, of course, “at the presence of the Lord.”
This perek should incite in all of us the desire to question: Why did God have to split the sea and not simply transport the Jews to the other side and strike the Egyptians dead? Why were there ten plagues and not one or two? Why was there a Churban Beis HaMikdash? An Exile? A Holocaust?
As children of God, we want to know everything and we thus question everything. It is in this sense that we mean that questioning is the hallmark of a great Jew. We absolutely should question all that is around us as that means that we are invested in God’s world. That is what it means to be the children of God.
Fear Of God
We are now left with one final question that still requires explanation, namely, the reason why we read the story of Marah on Pesach. Indeed, there is an even larger question that looms large over the entire episode: How could the Jewish people lose faith in God so quickly? Considering they just witnessed the miracles of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, it seems almost impossible that they should instantly revert to fear and concern that the God that just removed them from Egypt would not care to provide for them in the desert. Yet, this is exactly what happened.
Consider, though, the emotions that the Jewish people felt at the Red Sea as it collapsed behind them on the Egyptian army. Surely, there was a good amount of shock, confusion, happiness, relief felt by all still alive. More than anything, however, the Jewish people felt fear. They had just witnessed what God was capable of, the sheer power of a force not to be reckoned with. Whilst the most prominent belief in Egypt at the time was Polytheism, the single God of the universe had just reveled Himself and He was no Avinu. He was instead the biggest, scariest, most destructive force imaginable. In all that the Jewish nation had thus far seen from God, everything had been destructive. God ruined things, broke things, destroyed things, and killed things.
When the Jews got to Marah, then, they think that God won’t help them because they do not think that He can. The Jewish nation was well aware that if they needed God to destroy something for them, that was no problem. Turning bitter waters sweet, though? For all the Jews knew God was not capable of such things. The God the Jews were thus far acquainted with was nothing but a destructive force, a ruler, a dictator, Malkeinu; and the Jews were rightly petrified.
Note, then, how God identifies Himself to the Jewish nation at the end of the story of Marah as He promises to turn the bitter water sweet and make things right — “אֲנִי יְהוָה רֹפְאֶךָ”, “for I am the Lord that heals you.” God is telling the Jewish nation something that they did not yet know; that the same God that is capable of destroying things is also capable of healing things and making things better. God is not only the God that drowns people at sea, kills firstborns, or turns water into blood. He is also the God that makes bitter water sweet. God is not just the God of fear-mongering, nor is He exclusively destructive. God is not just the ruler, the dictator, Malkeinu; God is also Avinu, our Father. He is also the God of simcha, happiness, and healing.
God calms the fears of the thirsty Jewish people in Marah by telling them that He is well capable of helping them, and that they have nothing to fear of the destruction He brought upon Egypt, for if the Jewish nation keeps His Torah, God promises to “put none of the diseases upon [Israel], which [He has] put upon the Egyptians.”
To Be Children Of God
The mission of the Jewish people as the children of God is the mission of a people who are curious, partnered with God, and invested in building the world. Had the story of Pesach ended with the Exodus proper we would know of only a God who can break things, but build nothing. But the story does not end there. We continue to celebrate kriyas yam suf and the crucial story of Marah. Only there do we first encounter HaShem Rofecha, only there do we encounter Avinu. And the God of Avinu is the God of “mah lecha?”, and questioning, and child-like curiosity.
The goal of the seder, and the goal of Pesach as a whole, is to commit ourselves to Torah, mitzvos, and God. But we are to do this not simply seeing ourselves as passive to a God that is only Malkeinu; we cannot sit idly by and let life wash us over. We are not meant to perform the mitzvos, keep the various edicts and details, without investment, care, concern, questioning. Instead, we must see God as Avinu as well, and ourselves as His children.
We are meant to partner with God in building something great, in investing ourselves in Him and His Torah. As Jews, we must stay hungry for growth, and curious for answers to our questions; we must pursue and work and build with our King and Father in Heaven, with passion and care until the final redemption.
1. This essay is based on ideas heard from R. Moshe Benovitz.↩