Moadim L'Simcha & Mazal Tov to Rachel (nee Walk) and Micha-el Weinstein on the birth of a boy!
Shvi'I Shel Pesach-5776
Rabbi David Walk
For almost twenty years I was the tour guide for Yeshivat Hamivtar, where I also happened to have been a rebbe. I loved doing it, and except for that time I broke my foot falling down a mountain in the Shomron, it was great fun. My dad OB"M was a truck driver and I inherited his sense of direction (and sadly for those who know me, his sense of humor). So, all I had to do was add some stories, and voila! a great outing. Since I'm probably never going to be a tour guide again I can reveal the number one rule of tour guiding: Never take the same route back! These hikes and trips are limited in what they can see and do, therefore you want to give the impression of seeing as much as possible. Backtracking diminishes the wonder of the event. It's just bad form. So, it's with great trepidation that I must lower the grade for B'nei Yisrael's tour guide while leaving Egypt, and that, of course, was God. I'm sorry, no more than a B+. Just look at the record of the trip: God said to Moshe, 'Speak to the Children of Israel, and have them turn back and encamp before Pi Cherut, which is between Migdal and the sea; this is before Baal Tzefon where you should camp, by the sea (Exodus 14:1-2).' There you have it! God had the Jews return part of the way they had already marched. Which brings us to the great question: Why were the fleeing Jews required to retrace their steps? Weren't they trying to put Egypt in their rear view mirror?
Of course there are many answers to this conundrum. Our most famous commentary, Rashi suggests that they spent the entire third day out returning closer to Egypt in order to trick Pharaoh and the Egyptians into thinking that they were lost and ready to be brought back to their slavery. Unfortunately for Pharaoh this strategy worked. Those Egyptian charioteers just kept chasing the fleeing Jews until that dangerous water hazard on the 18th hole. The holy Or Hachaim adds that God did this because the Jews were starting to whine ("Let's go back to Egypt!' is a fine Jewish whine, sometimes referred to as kvetching) that they had it better in Egypt. Sadly, this theme of complaining plagues the Jews throughout their trek through the wilderness. But this year I'd like to take a new look at that circuitous route, from the Israelite perspective, rather than its effect upon the Egyptian pursuers.
The Sfat Emet (Reb Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1847-1905), from whom I often quote in these articles, makes a remarkable suggestion. The great Rebbe of Gur wants to contrast the two escapes from the clutches of Pharaoh which bookend the festival of freedom. The first day of this holiday begins with the Jews exiting Egypt in the most hurried way, but it's clearly stated to them that this event is a fulfilment of promises made to our Patriarchs. At the beginning of the process God declares to Moshe, I established My covenant with them (Patriarchs) to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned. And also, I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant (Exodus 6:4-5). And at the end of the plagues as the Jews prepare to depart Egypt God reiterates, Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage… And it will come to pass that the Lord will bring you into the land of the,…and it will come to pass that the Lord will bring you into the land of the Canaanites…which He swore to your forefathers to give you a land flowing with milk and honey (13:3 &5). The entire redemption was to keep God's promise to Avraham, et al.
However, when the Jews crossed the sea on the seventh day of the festival, it says, 'And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant. (14:31).' It was their new found faith in God which precipitated the events of the seventh day of Pesach. No mention of the forefathers, and in the Song of the Sea they are not mentioned. It's all about what the Jews themselves saw and experienced. During this week of flight from Egypt we had forged our own relationship with God which built on that of previous generations.
On the first day of Pesach we were taught that God makes and fulfills promises with those who love and revere our Lord. So, according to the Rebbe that's why we had to move back towards Egypt. Now we could return to the danger of Egypt's clutches only to re-emerge based upon our own merit. The Rebbe says that, temporarily, we actually re-entered the servitude to Egypt during the harrowing reappearance of the Egyptian chariots on the horizon. But this time we earned our redemption because of our faith at this critical juncture. The Rebbe then explains that's why this camp site by the Sea was called Pi Cherut, because that's Hebrew for 'the doorway (mouth) of freedom.' It marked the exact spot where our true freedom really began.
This is a powerful interpretation. It builds on the idea in the Haggadah, that everyone must see themselves as personally exiting Egypt. Every year we learn the story to remember what happened so long ago, but much more importantly to learn to forge our own relationship with God. Just like the Jews in Egypt benefitted from the merit of their ancestors, so, too, do we. And just as they built on that ancient connection to renew the bond and create our own covenant, so, too, must we. We also face physical and spiritual challenges, and we must learn to find our own faith in God and in Moshe and in the eternal destiny of our people. Chag Sameach!