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Shabbat, the 7th Day of Pesah – 5781

April 2, 2021

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A D’var Torah for Shabbat, the 7th Day of Pesah
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

The seventh day of Pesah is highlighted by Shirat Hayam – the song that we sang when we saw that we were finally free from Egypt. It is impossible to overstate the importance of Shirat Hayam. It represented a moment of the highest spiritual heights. Indeed, the rabbis established that we would recite neither the Shema nor the Amidah without introducing them with words of the Shira. The conclusion of the seder with the words “Leshanah Habah B’yerushalai’im” and the conclusion of the festival with Shirat Hayam indicate the amazing spiritual aspiration of Pesah.

Yet despite the celebration of such spiritual greatness, or perhaps because of it, I would like to focus this d’var Torah on the five verses that follow the Shira and conclude our Torah reading on the seventh day.

“Moshe made (the people of) Israel travel from the Sea of Reeds, and they went into the wilderness of Shur, and they walked for three day and they did not find water.” (Exod. 15:22)

Moshe made them travel (וַיַּסַּע)? Didn’t they want to go? Actually, explains the Midrash, no. According to some opinions (quoted by Rashi) they saw all the jewels which had adorned the Egyptian chariots floating in the water and washing up on the shores. Instead of moving forward, they were drawn backward to grab the jewels. According to another opinion, once the Jews saw Pharaoh’s army destroyed, they said, “Let’s go back to Egypt!” It’s a nice country. We know it well and we have been prosperous there before and we will be prosperous again. Instead of movement forward, they wanted to move back. Moses had to drag them.

 “They came to Marah, but they could not drink the waters of Marah because they were bitter; which is why they called it Marah. And the people complained to Moses, saying, ‘What will we drink?'” (Exod. 15:23)

From the highest of spiritual heights, it does not take much to fall. Life has a way of doing that to us. On one hand, we can sympathize with the people. After all, three days in the wilderness without water is frightening. But, as Rashi teaches, instead of coming to Moses to pray for them, they came to complain. The Baal Shem Tov elaborates on this and reads the words, “because they were bitter” not in reference to the water, but the people. Three days had made the people bitter. Granted, they were new at this, but it only took them three days to go from “vaya’aminu b’Adonai uveMoshe avdo” (Exod. 14:31) – complete faith in God and Moses – to becoming bitter and rebellious.

“He (Moses) cried out to Hashem, and Hashem showed him a branch; he threw it into the water and the water became sweet.” (Exod. 15:25)

I often wonder if this was a first step in re-establishing God’s relationship with the people. Surely they knew that God plagued the Egyptians by turning the drinkable water of the Nile into blood. Now, for them. God was turning the undrinkable water into sweet delicious water.

But there was also an important lesson. This was the first stop on the journey of the life of our people. On this journey, and on the journey of life, one will surely encounter bitterness. It can throw one for a loop. Bitterness can quickly turn faith into doubt and confidence into fear. Yet we learned at that moment that bitterness can be overcome; it can be made sweet. But we have to be careful not to let a bitter moment turn us into bitter people.

“There God established for the people a decree and a statute, and there He tested the people.” (Exod. 15:25)

Though the commentaries are too numerous to explain this verse fully, it appears that God gave the people a taste of mitzvot. There was a mitzvah “bein adam lamakom” – Shabbat – and “bein adam lehaveiro” – Mishpat – and some say it included the mitzvah of kibud av va’em.

But what is the test?

“If you will listen well to the voice of Hashem your God, and do what is proper and give ear to the mitzvot, then any of the afflictions that I (God) placed on the Egyptians will not be brought on you.  For I, Hashem, am your healer.” (Exod. 15:26)

I imagine that the test was to see whether, in establishing a relationship with God, the people could change their view of God from a deity that wreaks havoc (as in Egypt) to one who heals. And the language of healing is powerful. God never suggests that in this relationship everything will always be healthy and well. There will always be bitter waters. But – can we get to a point where instead of seeing God as the source of the bitterness, we can embrace God as the “sweetener” and the healer.

Time will tell.

We are still living the same test.

We in the AJR community devote so much of our minds and our souls to the search for spiritual heights. Each of us, in our different way, has experienced a Shirat Hayam. We know how wonderful that feels and we also know how difficult it is to hold on to the feeling. No Shirat Hayam can last forever, neither is it supposed to. And when it is over, life filled with the ‘jewels on the shore’, ‘the trek through the desert’ and the ‘bitter waters’ awaits. We understand how easily life’s bitterness can turn faith into doubt and confidence into spiritual anxiety.

For our ancestors, it was as if Shirat Hayam never happened. But we are heirs to the lessons of their lives. We rise to the challenge of the test.

Every Shirat Hayam moment should strengthen us to stare down the jewels, and to find courage when life seems like an endless walk in the wilderness. Every Shirat Hayam moment should teach us to face bitterness not with complaint but with sweetener. Every Shirat Hayam experience should bring us closer to a life in which God is the Healer.

It is said that if you are the same person when Pesah is over as you were when it began, then what was the point? Pesah and Yom Kippur are the days when we aspire to the highest spiritual heights. And as the festival leaves us, may it continue to be a source of strength and love for us and for those who we serve.
Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.