PESACH 1 5774
There is a passage in the Haggadah that is rarely spoken of—and I would wager you never heard a sermon about it—but, nevertheless, has a hidden message that is so profound that I would say it is, perhaps, the most important message of Pesach—the love of Gd for the Jewish people. (I’m indebted to Rabbi Yisroel Reisman whose lectures [J2] inspired this sermon.)
After we dip our pinkies in wine as we recite the plagues and before we sing Dayeynu thanking Gd, we recite 3 Talmudic passages about the crossing of the Red Sea. In the 1st, Rabbi Yosi Haglili points out that in Egypt the Torah refers to the plagues as coming from the “finger of Gd,” while at the Red Sea the Torah speaks of the “hand of Gd.” He then asks: “If one finger of Gd in Egypt caused 10 plagues, we may conclude that the whole hand of Gd at the Red Sea caused 50 plagues.”
In the 2nd Talmudic passage Rabbi Eliezer says in effect, “That’s nothing!” From the verse in Psalm 78, “He sent against the Egyptians His burning anger, wrath, indignation, trouble and messengers of evil,” he concludes that every plague was 4-fold in nature and so while in Egypt there were 40 plagues, at the Red Sea there were 200 plagues. In the 3rd Talmudic passage Rabbi Akiva jumps in and shows how this same verse tells us that every plague was 5-fold in nature and, therefore, while in Egypt there were 50 plagues, at the Red Sea there were 250 plagues!
This part of the Haggadah is like a stepchild. If you open up most commentaries on the Haggadah you will see very little written about it—if anything. And in the homes where they don’t recite the whole Haggadah, this is one of the 1st passages they skip.
This whole part of the Haggadah is problematic. The Haggadah tells us right after the 4 questions: “Therefore, even if we are all learned and wise, all elders and fully versed in the Torah, it is our duty nonetheless to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.” That’s what the Seder is all about—the Exodus. We don’t retell the story of Mt. Sinai and the 10 Commandments, or the Golden Calf or the miraculous manna that rained down from heaven. We tell the story of the Exodus. So why are there these passages about the Red Sea in the Haggadah?
Perhaps that is why if you look closer, you’ll see that these 3 passages don’t really tell the story of the Red Sea. They don’t tell us that the sea split, that the earth they crossed on was dry or that the Egyptians drowned—only that the miraculous nature of the crossing of the Red Sea was far greater than even the Exodus itself!
However, if you think about it, it’s not nice that on the night when we are to retell the story of the Exodus we diminish the miracle of that Exodus saying, “In Egypt there may have been 50 plagues, but at the sea there were 250!?” It’s like someone making a toast at a party honoring someone saying, “If you think the honoree so great, let me tell you about someone even better. If the honoree is a 10, this other person is a 50!” It appears on 1st glance that this whole part of the Haggadah is inappropriate.
In the embryonic stages of the Jewish people, Gd tells Abraham what will happen to his children. He foretells that they will descend to Egypt and be enslaved there for 400 years and promises that afterwards they will go out with great wealth. The Sages learn from these passages that our forefathers were told much of the history of the Jewish people. But this great majestic event of the splitting of the Red Sea—that might have been even greater than the Exodus—was not shown to them. Why?
At the beginning of the Exodus narrative the Torah (Ex. 2:24) tells us, vayizkor Elokim et b’rito, “and Gd remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” That is to say, the Exodus occurred because of the promise made to our forefathers. Gd remembered His promise and so he saved them. If someone promises you something and years later he keeps his promise…for example, if someone owes you money and later he repays you…or when someone gives you something that he’s obligated to give…it shows honesty, it shows trustworthiness, but it does not in any way, however, show love. It’s just something that one is obligated to do.
At the Brit Beyn haBtarim, “the Covenant Between the Pieces,”—which was more than 400 years before the Exodus—Gd told Abraham what would happen to his children in Egypt and that he would redeem them. So when the Exodus occurred, the Jewish people had no way of knowing whether Gd had saved them because of His love for them or because of that promise.
When someone promises to do something, it’s not always done with joy and enthusiasm. Often it’s done because of the promise. If you promise your child a gift if he passes his math test, he might just study just enough to get a 65 or 70. You had in mind he would try much harder, but that’s often what happens with a promise.
There is often little sign of love or caring for another human being when you do things you’re obligated to do. If you really want to show someone you care about them, to show someone he/she matters to you, you have to do something extra—something beyond the obligation.
Most husbands and wives feel that they are obligated to help provide for their families. It’s understood and, therefore, not greatly appreciated. However, when your spouse gives you something he/she is not obligated to give…it doesn’t have to be expensive…it can be a letter, a card, a favorite candy, flowers…that has real meaning and shows caring and love.
In my work as a couples’ therapist, I urge every couple to try—at least 2 or 3 times a week—to do something for your partner that will make him/her feel loved. It doesn’t have to cost much—although diamonds earrings are not bad—but it does have to some thought and love behind it. When our spouses see us doing something extra—loving and caring behaviors—for them day in and day out, it changes their attitude toward us. Believe me it works. Find the courage to try it! Don’t get discouraged if they don’t reciprocate or seem to appreciate it right away. Do it anyway. After a while you’ll see them soften. Do something extra; you won’t regret it!
The splitting of the Red Sea was extra. It was Gd’s love gift to the Jewish people. The Exodus had to happen because it was promised. But after the Exodus the Jewish people were not really sure if it happened because of the promise or if there was something more. After all, the sages tell us, before the Exodus the Jews had shrunken to the 49th level of impurity and sin. They became like their captors and didn’t deserve to be redeemed. And, as we later saw, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Gd was prepared to destroy the Jewish people and start over with Moses because the promise of the Exodus had already been fulfilled. So the Jewish people were not sure after the Exodus if Gd would now continue to watch over them and protect them. That’s why when they arrived at the Red Sea and saw the Egyptians pursuing them, they panicked.
It was at the Red Sea that Gd really showed His love for His people. And it was at the Red Sea that the Jewish people really understood that even the Exodus happened—not so much for the promise—but because of Gd’s great love. Why wasn’t the Red Sea shown to the forefathers? So that it would always be the great symbol of Gd’s love. And that’s why the sages (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Behalach, Masechta de Shira: 3) teach us that, “what a handmaiden saw at the Red Sea far exceeded what Isaiah and Ezekiel saw?” They felt the power of Gd’s love as they crossed the sea more than anyone before or since. And that’s why Moses was so moved to sing the great Song of the Sea in praise to Gd.
So tonight at your Seders, don’t skip these 3 passages about the 250 plagues at the Red Sea. Tell everyone there that, in a most unique way, these are Gd’s love letters to us. Then continue the Seder knowing how much Gd loves us and that he’s got our back. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis
PESACH 1 5774