Many events in the Torah signal transformative moments. Of them all, the story narrated at the end of Pesach is perhaps the most significant. After the departure of the Israelites from Egypt under the leadership of Moses, we come to the passage through the Sea of Reeds and read the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15).
Exodus 15 is represented as the spontaneous song of celebration offered by Moses, Miriam, and all Israel after their miraculous escape and the consequent engulfing of the Egyptians. It is preceded by the story of Israel’s panic upon seeing the pursuing Egyptians. “And they said to Moses: Did you bring us into the wilderness to die because there were no graves in Egypt?… It was better to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness!” (14:10-12) After witnessing the Ten Plagues, after being released by Pharaoh, after departing from Egypt, the people still doubt the power of God and the leadership of Moses.
Nonetheless, God is envisioned as instructing Moses to part the sea, and the people escape the Egyptians. “And Israel saw the great work that the Lord carried out against Egypt; they were in awe of the Lord, believing in the Lord and in his agent, Moses.” (14:31)
With the miracle accomplished and the people free, we would expect that doubt and accusation would be at an end. Yet in the very next chapter we read: “The entire community of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness…. If only we had died at the hand of God in Egypt…. You have brought us into this wilderness to die of hunger.” (16:2-3)
The bracketing of the “Song of the Sea” by these episodes of unfaithfulness appears to be a deliberate choice by the biblical editors. The celebration of liberation and the return of recrimination are in direct contrast.
In this narrative structure, we see a tendency within human nature to revert to established patterns of behavior notwithstanding ample evidence that ought to serve as a transformative motivation to new patterns. How often we are surprised by a moment of revelation, a moment in which prior cynicism and despair dissolve in a spontaneous burst of affirmation like the “Song of the Sea.” And how quickly we allow ourselves to revert to our habitual style of living, thinking, and feeling.
One of the challenges of Pesach is to consider whether as Jews we are so conditioned by oppression (like our ancestors in Egypt) that we cannot internalize and act upon new circumstances that present themselves to us (as at the Sea of Reeds). The generation of Egypt never made it to the Promised Land, perhaps because while you could take the Jews out of Egypt, you could not take Egypt out of (that generation of) the Jews.
The wisdom of the ancient rabbis who helped shape the cycle of Torah readings for the holidays is evident in the choice of Exodus 15 to close the (original and for contemporary Jews who follow the Israel calendar) seven-day observance of Pesach. We have been given a new opportunity, and the freedom to engage it. While not forgetting the past, how do we turn our attention to the future? Without forgetting that “we were slaves in Egypt” how do we embrace the reality “but now we are free people?”