On the eve of their departure from Egypt, Am Yisrael had to sacrifice a lamb as a Korban Pesach and place its blood on their doorposts.
Considering Egyptian culture regarded sheep as a form of deity, Hashem’s request was rather daunting for a nation which still saw itself as slaves of the Egyptian people. Am Yisrael’s obedience is an incredible tribute to their faith in the Almighty and Moshe Rabbeinu.
Rashi alludes to this when he states the time had arrived for Hashem to fulfill his promise to Avraham Avinu (regarding the redemption of his children), but they had no credit to their name. So He gave the people two mitzvot – the blood of the Paschal Lamb and the blood of circumcision.
On the one hand, Rashi testifies to the courage of the masses. On the other, he offers an implicit indictment of the people – “they had no credit to their name.” Am Yisrael appears conspicuously silent as the wheels of redemption begin to turn. Throughout the first twelve chapters of Shemot we see Moshe and Aharon presenting the Almighty’s demands to Pharaoh but the people are nowhere to be seen. No marches, no demonstrations and no real challenge to the ruling power at all.
Indeed, when Moshe and Aharon first make their way to the palace with an impressive delegation, that very same entourage slowly backs away until only Moshe and Aharon remain standing in front of the king. With no support from the people, Pharaoh is able to dismiss them with a mocking wave of the hand, even increasing the workload of the longsuffering Jews.
And this was a recurring scenario up to and including the climactic moments of the exodus from Egypt.
So here, in the prototype story of national liberation, the liberated had nothing at all to do with their liberation! Hashem took the people out of Egypt because He decided the time had come. Perhaps that is why the first day of Pesach is referred to as a Shabbat (Vayikra 23:15) – it emanates from a wholly Divine source with no human involvement at all. Indeed according to Rabbi Shimshon Refael Hirsch that is why there is a mitzvah to eat Matzah on the first night of Pesach – he maintains that Matzah was the food that we ate as slaves in Egypt. We were specifically commanded to celebrate our freedom with the same food to emphasize the fact that the exodus from Egypt was not the result of a popular uprising of the masses – we left as slaves by the hand of God.
This is not a criticism of Bnei Yisrael. After all, they had been conditioned to a passive slave mentality for 210 years. The Ibn Ezra relates to this negative mindset and suggests perhaps Moshe Rabbeinu was brought up amongst royalty because of what was to come. Hashem knew he would need to stand up and kill an Egyptian and that he would ultimately have to frequent the palace. Such behavior could never be expected of a downtrodden slave and it is quite possible that Aharon – who did grow up in the slave atmosphere of Egypt – would never have dared face Pharaoh without Moshe by his side.
The Ibn Ezra also questions why the nation did not simply stampede the Egyptian army when cornered at Yam Suf. After all, they outnumbered them by massive proportions. Again he concludes the slave mentality simply took over. Instead of seeing hordes of approaching soldiers, they saw their angry masters bearing down on them and froze in fright.
Be that as it may, were we only to celebrate Yetziat Mitzrayim exactly as it happened, the message for future generations would be misleading – “Sit back and the Almighty will do all the work.” That is why we need the last day of Pesach – the seventh day, which commemorates the splitting of the sea. This day complements the first day.
When Moshe first addresses the nation on the banks of the sea, as the Egyptians draw nearer, it appears the Almighty is going to perform a solo act once again:
And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear. Stand still and witness the salvation of the Lord, which He will work for you today. For whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again. The Lord will fight for you and you shall hold your peace.
But in the very next verse, the Almighty Himself questions that approach:
And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you call out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel so they go forward.’
This is not acceptable. This time the people are going to have to take some initiative. You start moving and only then will I intervene.
The Talmud corroborates this idea:
Rabbi Meir said, “When Bnei Yisrael stood by the Red Sea, the tribes fought with each other, each wishing to be first to go into the sea. Then the tribe of Binyamin sprang forward and went down first into the sea… Thereupon the princes of the tribe of Yehuda hurled stones at them… For that reason the righteous Binyamin was worthy to become the host of the All-Powerful…
Rabbi Yehuda said [to R. Meir], “That is not what happened. No tribe was willing to be the first to enter the sea. Then Nachshon ben Aminadav (from the tribe of Yehuda) sprang forward and first into the sea.
At that time Moshe was engaged in prayer for a long while, so the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you are prolonging prayer before Me!” He said to Him, “Lord of the Universe, what can I do?” He replied to him, “Speak to the Children of Israel that they should advance. And you lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand, etc.” For that reason Yehudah was worthy to become the ruling power in Israel, as it is said, “Yehudah became His sanctuary, Israel his dominion.” Why did Yehudah become His sanctuary and Israel his dominion? Because the sea saw [him] and fled.
This intriguing portrayal of the dynamics amongst the tribes as they stood between the sea and the Egyptians is one of a number of descriptions suggesting a sudden maturing of this recently liberated people. Although Rabbi Yehuda paints a less than exciting picture of only one tribe leading the way, Rabbi Meir’s interpretation of events is much more positive – the very same downtrodden slaves who were redeemed just a week ago are now competing with each other to prove who has the greater faith in the Almighty!
Let us look to Chassidut, which captures our theme using two phrases – “hitorerut deleilah” (awakening from on high) and “hitorerut diletata” (awakening from below). Pesach is a combination of both of these principles.
On the one hand, the first day of Pesach celebrates Divine Providence – awakening from on high. The people do nothing and the Almighty controls the situation. But if this was the only reality, there would be little to no point in our existence. A world in which we sit idly watching life pass us by is not a world in which we can achieve or grow. Hence the seventh day comes to teach us we have to act as well. Even though God is actively involved in the world; even though it is ultimately He who will split the sea, we must show some willingness too.
According to Rabbi Yehuda, it could well be that a heated ideological debate took place on the banks of the sea. The majority stood by and said “Let’s wait for God.” But the tribe of Yehuda argued “No! God is waiting for us!” Awakening from below.
As usual, Chazal have engraved a crucial message in our collective and individual psyche. If we don’t lift a finger to solve our problems, they won’t be solved. Our nation will not be redeemed if we just sit back and wait.
This theme is echoed in another context too, where Man has to act:
If you see your enemy’s ass suffering under its burden, you shall refrain from passing him by and you shall surely release it with him.
Although the passerby is commanded to assist a person he dislikes intensely, the owner of the ass cannot sit and wait for the helper to do his work for him. They must relieve the animal together.
This fundamental educational ethos repeats itself a number of times in our sources:
The Talmud in Massechet Nidah (30b) informs us that embryos in their mother’s womb are taught the entire Torah, yet moments before the birth that knowledge is taken away from them. These pure newly born babies subconsciously know that the truth exists – in the depths of their soul there is an awareness of that truth – but if they are to really attain truth then they must find it alone.
Similarly the Gemara in Sotah (2a) tells us that our future partner in life was predestined even before we were born, yet we know nothing of that “match made in heaven”. We have to find our future partner ourselves, and even once we find him or her, we spend a lifetime together until we become a “true-one”.
The phenomenon is fundamental – we experience the ideal, and then we are instructed to attain it ourselves. We see the objective, but we must attain it alone! There can be no comparison between an unearned spiritual gift, and a spiritual level that has been attained through blood sweat and tears!
The national year begins in Nisan with Pesach and it ends in Adar with Purim. On Pesach the nation was saved by the direct actions of the Almighty. The people were, to all intents and purposes, passive אתערותא דלעילא.
Purim, however is a different story altogether. Of course it could never have occurred without the secretly directing hand of the Almighty, but the events developed because of the actions and heroism of Mordechai and Esther and because of the reaction of the people who repented and united.
And so we start the year with Pesach, a festival initiated by God, but we end the year with Purim, a salvation that has so much to do with man. The message for us here is clear – initiative!
On this ליל הסדר, we note with absolute gratitude that the Almighty did not wait for us to cleanse ourselves; had He done so it may well have been too late (see Bet Halevi Shemot 12:42), but together with our gratitude perhaps the time has come to learn the lesson:
The Midrash (Eichah Rabbah Parshah 5) says:
Am Yisrael pray to God:
“Return us to You and we will repent” – השיבנו ה’ אליך ונשובה.
But the Almighty retorts:
“You return to me and then I will return to you” – שובו אלי ואשובה אליכם (זכריה א’).
The Kotzker Rebbe of blessed memory once told a student of a well known Rebbe: “I love your Rebbe very much, but why does he relentlessly instruct his talmidim to constantly pray for the coming of the Mashiach? Why not teach his talmidim to initiate the coming of Mashiach by doing something about it!”
Not “we want Mashiach now” but “let’s bring Mashiach now” – נתרחץ ונתקדש!
חג כשר ושמח
 See Rashi –to Bereishit 46:34.
 Rashi, Shemot 12:6.
 Rashi, Shemot 5:1.
 Shemot 2:3.
 Maybe this is not giving Aharon the credit he is due. The Midrash implies Moshe and Aharon were not intimidated by Pharaoh because the tribe of Levi was not enslaved by the Egyptians. See Bamidbar Rabbah, Naso, Chapter 13 Siman 10.
 Shemot 14:13.
 Shemot 14:13-14.
 Sotah 36b – 37a.
 Tehillim 114:2.
 Ibid, 114:3.
 Shemot 23:5.