Pesach 7th day yizkor
I’m sure many if not all of us have seen that fabulous midrash on film, The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston. It was our family tradition for many years to watch it the day before the Seder, but after many years its staid “effects” paled in comparison to what our kids could see on the big screen in movie theatres. But I have my favourite scenes from the film which remind me, before the Seder itself, of what I would call the most memorable moments of the Exodus story:
like…the scene of Moses meeting his wife Tziporah—or as she’s called in the film Zepharah—in her father Jetheo’s tent. She’s the sensible one, the one not dancing to please him, and I think she’s an early feminist.
and like…the scene of Dotan—called Dathan in the film—played by my father’s distant cousin Edward G Robinson with so much character—who agitates the people with righteous indignation “that Moses, does he think he’s the only holy one??”
and like…the wild dancing scene before the Golden Calf that makes it look like a drunken party I’d wanna be at…
Those scenes though made me wonder this year, what really is the greatest moment in the Exodus story? The moment that crystallizes the whole experience? Is it the tenth plague when the first borns get killed? Is it the slaughtering of the lamb and painting its blood on our lintels—literally on our mezuot—to save us? Is it receiving the commandments at Sinai? Or is it the final moment, the ultimate ending, when we cross over into the Promised Land without Moses, and begin our history as a people?
I ask this question because while it is the journey from slavery to freedom that takes up the first two days of Pesach, here at the end of Pesach the focus of our holiday is on crossing of the Red Sea. The Torah tells us that the splitting of the Red Sea and the escape from the Egyptian army took place on the last day of Pesach. So I was not surprised to read in Rabbi Elimelech bar Shaul, the past chief Rabbi of Rehovot whose book of commentary Min Habe’er I study every week, the beautiful answer to my question of the most important moment of all: at the sea, when the entire future of the Jewish people depended on whether or not we would cross to safety; that very moment, when we stood between the raging sea in front of us and the Pharoah’s army behind us, was the ultimate encapsulation of everything the Exodus meant. For we stood at the very crossroad of our past and our future, and it became clear that we would only survive if we went forward into the sea, not backward to the army.
Bar Shaul says: “our only chance for resiliency is to know that unless we plunge forward into the future, we will not survive the past coming up behind us.”
That is the essence of Pesach and the essence of yizkor. At the very beginning of the Haggadah, we peer into the past; we start all the way with Abraham and Terach and recall how our ancestors were idol worshipers. We retell our slavery narrative, and we go down into Egypt, we go down into a place of brokenness and sorrow, and then we come back out and find redemption. We turn the page, we finish the meal, we sing.
Rabbi Elimelech bar Shaul calls this moment of standing between the sea and the army the moment of truest emunah— truest faith. In fact, the Slonimer Rebbe, known as the Netivot Shalom, taught that Pesach is known as the “Rosh Hashanah of Emunah” - the New Year for Emunah, the new year for faith. Matzah is described by the Zohar as a michlah d’mehemnusah — the food of emunah, the food of faith. But what does emunah really mean? It’s not an Orthodox kind of blind faith, it really means trust. Trust that you can and will move forward and that the sea will part for you to walk through.
That is the essence of Pesach and that is the essence of yizkor. We know as human brings that we stand most of our lives between the raging sea in front of us and the pursuing army in back of us. And it takes all our strength and all our faith and all our confidence to move forward and not let the army behind us conquer us.
Loss, sadness, depression, hopelessness is the army behind us. It wants us to stand paralyzed so it can advance. It is our past but not the beautiful past of memories and closeness and warmth. It is the past that wants us to drown in it, to drown with it, horses and chariots together with us. But I will not be so naive as to suggest that it is all sunshine and dry land in front of us, either. There is still a sea in front of us— a sea of uncertainty, of swirling emotion, of waves of doubt, of unclear direction. A sea of the future which holds out no sure promises, no guarantees of a safe arrival at a Promised Land. But like Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first tribesman to step into the sea and say with emunah, with faith and trust, “when we walk in, it will part…” we stand at that frightening place, wanting so much to look behind, but needing so much to look ahead.
When I was a kid, my friends and I at temple had a name for the grown-ups who got to stay in the sanctuary during the mysterious time of yizkor; when we got shooed out by our parents; we called it the “Yizkor Club.” As a child I had always thought of it that as something exclusive, something that grown-ups were a part of but I wasn’t. And then there was the day I joined the club, losing my sister as a young adult, and then again when my father passed and three years ago next week when my mother passed. And I know now its a club no one wants to join.
But those in the club understand one thing clearly: we have all stood in that terrifying place between the demanding past and the demanding future; between our memories and our hopes. And because we have all somehow walked into that sea and left the army behind, we can offer each other the most solid form of emunah there is—support, community, understanding, patience, sympathy, and friendship. That is why we are here today, and that is why is the army behind us will not win, as we hold hands and walk into the uncertain sea with hope and confidence that indeed, we will walk through in safety.