Passover 5781: It’s About The Love!
Passover (seventh day) (Exodus 13:17-15:26 )
GOOD MORNING! Passover, which began on Saturday night, March 28th, continues this week. Presuming that you survived a Seder or two with your extended family, now is the time to focus on the rest of the holiday.
As we will shortly see, it is also a time to focus and repair relationships. Even couples who have been married for a long time tend to find the weeks leading up to Passover stressful – often leading to conflict and feelings of being unappreciated. Apologizing for one’s behavior under duress is a must and learning to say, “I am sorry for what I did” goes a long way (though saying “I am sorry… I married you” doesn’t).
Passover is unique in that it consists of two yom tovs – “holy days”; the first day and the last day. In other words, the first day is a yom tov; it is then followed by five intermediate days (which have a lesser level of holiness), and it ends with a yom tov on the seventh day (outside the Land of Israel they are observed as the first two days and the last two days of the holiday). Why the need for two separate holy days?
On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the Children of Israel left Egypt, where they had served as slaves for hundreds of years. Despite his original stubborn refusal, after ten debilitating plagues Pharaoh relented and freed the Children of Israel to leave Egypt for a three-day spiritual retreat in the desert.
When the Israelites failed to return after those initial three days Pharaoh came to realize that they were gone for good. Unsurprisingly, this did not sit well with Pharaoh. He marshaled his entire force of chariots and his fierce army to pursue his former slaves and return them to Egypt. The Egyptian army caught up with the Israelites at the banks of the Red Sea. The Israelites were trapped between one of the most feared armies in the world and the sea.
As usual, the Israelites met this challenge with equanimity and a calm demeanor. Kidding! In what was to become a familiar pattern over the next four decades, the Children of Israel began to complain bitterly; “Are there not enough graves in Egypt that you took us out to die here in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Didn’t we tell you to leave us alone and let us serve as slaves in Egypt?” (Exodus 14:10-12).
Of course, Moses is not-so-thrilled with the reaction of the Israelites and their sudden pining for the “good old days” as slaves in Egypt. He urges them to stand fast and turns to pray to the Almighty for salvation. It is then that Hashem answers Moses in a most remarkable way; “Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them travel forward!” – Sometimes you have to stop talking and just take action.
As one might imagine, the Israelites were less than thrilled by the prospect of marching into the Red Sea. According to the Midrash, Nachshon son of Aminadav, who was the head of the tribe of Judah (as well as the brother in law of Moses’ brother Aaron) took the initiative and marched into the raging sea and was followed by his tribe. The royal line of Jewish kings and the eventual messiah are the descendants of Nachshon.
As the water began to surge up to their necks, Moses raised his staff and the wind began to blow. Miraculously, the sea began to recede and split in half allowing the Israelites to comfortably cross on dry land. When the Egyptians attempted to follow them across, the sea came crashing down on them. Chariots, riders and horses all perished in the churning sea.
The miracle of the Splitting of the Red Sea happened on the seventh day of Passover. It is for this reason that there are separate yom tovs “holy days” on Passover; the beginning of Passover celebrates the freedom from slavery and the end celebrates the miraculous escape through the splitting of the Red Sea.
Overwhelmed with gratitude, Moses led the Israelites in singing the Song of the Sea. Miriam led the women in an additional song of thanks, accompanied by tambourines and drums.
Because the holiday extends through the upcoming Shabbat, the Torah reading for this Shabbat is not part of the regular cycle of Torah portions. Instead, we read the story of the splitting of the Red Sea and the “Song of the Sea”.
In addition, for millennia synagogues in every Jewish community around the world have the custom of reading Shir Hashirim – Song of Songs – on the Shabbat of Passover.
Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs, is one of the five Megillot, or Sacred Scrolls, that are part of the Hebrew Bible. According to Jewish tradition, it was penned by King Solomon and is a timeless allegory of the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people, as described in terms of the love between a man and a woman.
This love is deeply expressed in the most beautiful and poetic terms. Song of Songs is written in an unabashedly sensuous manner, and is quite a paean to the intensity of longing for a beloved. It is an intensely beautiful tribute to love.
Given the sensuous and sometime explicit nature of Song of Songs, its inclusion in the biblical canon was a matter of some controversy. In fact, it seems that it would have been excluded from the Bible altogether, if it did not have a powerful champion. As the Sages debated which books were to be included in the Scriptures, the famous sage of the first century, Rabbi Akiva – perhaps the most respected sage of his era, argued that “while all of the sacred writings are holy, Song of Songs is the holy of holies!” (Mishnah Yadayim 3:5).
The commentaries suggest that Rabbi Akiva’s affinity for the Song of Songs stems from his metaphorical understanding of its contents, reading Song of Songs as King Solomon intended, an extended allegory to the loving relationship between God and Israel. Indeed, the tradition of understanding Song of Songs as a metaphor for the divine love, rather than the human, is found in both Jewish law and Jewish mysticism.
Maimonides, the great medieval sage and philosopher and perhaps the greatest codifier of Jewish Law, writes; “What is the proper form of the love of God? It is that he should love the Almighty with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly… And it is to this that Solomon refers allegorically when he says: ‘For I am love-sick’ (Song of Songs 2:5) for the whole of Song is a parable on this theme.” (Hilchos Teshuvah 10:3)
Still, what does all of this have to do with Passover? Why did the rabbis establish that Song of Songs should be read on Passover?
Did you ever wonder why so many Jewish rituals mention the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt? Jewish tradition is rife with constant reminders of this. As an example, the sanctification of Shabbat over wine on Friday night includes the following line; “(Shabbat) is first of the holy days and a remembrance to the Exodus from Egypt.” What does that even mean?
When the Jewish people were standing at Mount Sinai and the Almighty introduced Himself to them at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, He said; “I am the Lord your God that took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). This seems very odd. A much better description of the Almighty would seem to be that He is the creator of the world and everything in it. In fact, this would be a much stronger reason as to why they owe Him their fealty. Why did the Almighty limit Himself to them as the One who took them out of Egypt?
The answer is that God is informing them that the basis of their relationship is love. God took us out of Egypt because He cares about us and desires a relationship with us. This is why we constantly remind ourselves of the Exodus: it’s the basis of our relationship with the Almighty – a relationship of love.
Now we understand why reading the Song of Songs is so appropriate for Passover. God’s love for His people, as expressed by freeing us from slavery in Egypt and making us His own, is truly a love relationship. This is so eloquently described in King Solomon’s sublime paean to love and most appropriate for the holiday of Passover.
True love is about the connectivity of two entities merging into a greater whole. The Hebrew language is ancient and is the language by which the world was created (“And God said…”). The Hebrew alphabet has a number system assigned to it. In its most basic form, the first letter is the number one the second letter is the number 2, etc.
The numerical value of “love” (ahava) is 13 and the numerical value for “one” (echad) is 13, further expressing the relationship between the two concepts. In addition, in Hebrew the word for song is “shir,” which is the root of the word “sharsheres,” which is an interlocking chain – because a song connects one to another, just like love is about connectivity.
It is for this reason that we constantly remind ourselves of the Exodus. It’s like hearing the words “I love you” from someone that you care for deeply. As we know, hearing someone tell you that they love you never gets old. Now apply that lesson to your own life and let those in your life know how deeply you care for them as well. Happy Passover!
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The Torah reading for this Shabbat is Exodus 13:17-15:26, which tells the story of the Egyptians having changed their minds about letting the Jewish people go, pursuing us unto the Yam Soof (Red/Reed Sea), the splitting of the sea, the salvation of the Jewish people, the drowning of the Egyptians, the song of rejoicing and thanks to the Almighty. We also read Shir HaShirim, The Song of Songs, the Megillah (scroll) that metaphorically describes the love affair of the Almighty and the Jewish people.
On the last day of Pesach, Sunday, we read Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 from the Torah portion of Re'eh including the Second Tithe, remission of loans every seven years, directive to open your hand to the poor, laws of a Jewish bondsman and ending with details of the three Pilgrim Festivals - Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot - when all of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel would come to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. Also on Sunday is Yizkor, memorial prayers for parents who have passed on.
While you need to check the rearview mirror – your main focus must stay fixed on the windshield.