Passover

Exodus 13:17-15:26 and Numbers 28:19-28:25
April 26, 2008 / 21 Nisan 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Pearl Resnick Dean, The Rabbinical School, JTS.

What would be included in Moses's career highlights tape? Certainly it would feature the triumphal scenes found in today’s Torah reading. Moses holds out his staff, the sea splits, the Israelites escape, and Moses leads his people in jubilant song. It just doesn’t get any better than this.

Indeed, Moses's subsequent triumphs are comparatively bittersweet. Coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, he discovers the golden calf. Defeating his rival, Korach, he faces a jittery and terrified population. Delivering his people to the banks of the Jordan, he is stopped short of his personal goal. But the song at the sea is the purest triumph of his career, and one of the most joyous in Jewish history.

What is the key ingredient to the celebration? What allows Moses to sing? Look back a verse to Exodus 14:31. It says, “Israel revered the Lord; they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses.” Read the last clause with the next sentence, 15:1, and you get, “They believed in His servant Moses . . . Then Moses sang with all of Israel.” This juxtaposition has a message. Once the people believe in Moses, he is able to sing. The people give him confidence, and with that gift, he leads them in song.

In contrast, flip back to chapter six of Exodus, verse 12. There Moses protests God’s command that he return to Egypt and again confront Pharaoh: “Behold, Israel didn’t listen to me, how will Pharaoh—and I am tongue-tied!” Note the order of this declaration. When the Israelites refuse to listen to Moses, he despairs of influencing Pharaoh and is reminded of his disorder.

The Sefat Emet goes further, saying that it is the refusal of Israel to listen that causes Moses to become tongue-tied (II, 38). Their skepticism stops his revelation and leaves him speechless. In general, a prophet draws strength from the people. This is the meaning of Deuteronomy18:15, “the Lord your God shall raise a prophet from your midst like me—to him shall you listen.” Only when the prophet emerges from the midst of the people and enjoys their support can he truly speak God’s word.

Taken together, these verses teach an important lesson. Moses may be a leader, but his performance depends on his people. When they believe in him, he can lead them in song. When they ignore him, he is tongue-tied. The difference between singing and stuttering is one of confidence. Supported by his people, Moses can overcome his disorder and make joyous song.

The same dynamic is observed in our own lives. When a person feels supported, then he or she can often perform on a higher level. We see this in the classroom, where students who are encouraged can often progress in mastering the material. Likewise, in sports, a pep talk and a supportive crowd can change the dynamic of a team and lift it to victory. In politics, a supportive media and enthusiastic base can allow a candidate to speak in exalted tones and broaden his or her base.

This is also true on the pulpit. When a congregation responds to a preacher’s message, the result is far more powerful. This is one reason that the best preaching in America often comes from African American traditions. The congregation encourages the preacher, allowing him or her to find the inspiration and power needed to speak in a transformative fashion.

I once had the privilege of speaking in a church in Detroit at a program honoring the late Rosa Parks. From my first sentence, the congregation began to offer encouragement. I may have missed some cues. Sometimes an audience will mutter, “Give him support, Lord.” If they did, I didn’t hear it. Rather, I recall feeling excited and encouraged to develop my message and make connections that would have eluded me when speaking to a stony-faced audience. It was a great experience that made me a better speaker. When you listen to black preachers, it often seems that they are singing their words. Their impact is amplified by this dynamic of support.

For Jews, it is not always easy to offer this type of support. We delight in analysis, criticism, and refutations. Often this helps to sharpen a message, and sometimes it is a necessary corrective to unfounded assertions. Yet we lose something by guarding our critical distance. We lose the ability to connect and to soar. When we feel confidence in our message, when our congregations unite around a mission, then our leaders can lead us to a position of strength and joy.

The first days of Passover were devoted to scholarly conversation. The skeptical symposium was the model for our seder. Yet at this late stage of the festival, it is time to transition into a more robust, celebratory mode. After seven days of Hallel, we are finally ready to cross the sea and burst into song. In synagogue, in school, and at home, let us show faith in one another and unite in our sacred song of freedom.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.