Shëvi‘i shel Pesach (The Seventh Day of Passover)
The seventh day of Passover commemorates the splitting of Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds, and Israel’s final deliverance from Egyptian bondage thrugh the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. Accordingly, we read the account of the splitting, from Exodus III,17-V,26 on this holiday.
The scene at the seashore is familiar enough: the multitude of men and women of all ages, encumbered with children and all their worldly possessions, cower in terror-stricken panic as they watch the headlong rush of every vehicle in Egypt which would roll, all bearing maddened soldiers bent on their liquidation.
Then Moshe’s voice rings out, stilling their frightened protests: Al tira’u, hithyatzvu urë’u eth yëshu‘ath Ha-Shem asher ya‘ase lachem hayom ki asher rë’ithem eth Mitzrayim hayom lo’ thosifu lir’otham ‘od ‘ad ‘olam (“Fear not, position yourselves and see Ha-Shem’s salvation which He will do for you today; for as you have seen Egypt today you will not continue to see them forever more”; IV,14). And, indeed: Vayar’ Yisra’él eth Mitzrayim méth ‘al sëfath hayam. Vayar’ Yisra’él eth hayad hagëdola asher ‘asa Ha-Shem bëMitzrayim vayir’u ha‘am eth Ha-Shem vaya’aminu ba-Shem uvëMoshe ‘avdo (“And Israel saw Egypt dead at the edge of the sea. And Israel saw the great hand which Ha-Shem had made for them through Egypt, and the people feared Ha-Shem and believed in Ha-Shem and in Moshe, His servant”; ibid., 30-31).
Two things are striking about the above passages: the first is the interplay between the two rather similar verbs yara’ (“fear”) and ra’a (“see”). A bit of reflection reveals that they appear related, in that both share the letters réysh-alef, which in the first instance is augmented by the radical prefix yud and in the second by suffixation of silent hé, which finds expression as a vowel. The implications of this relationship are worth exploring.
The second is the odd expression “the great hand” which Ha-Shem had made for them through the medium of Egypt’s downfall. Whatever does that mean?
Let us deal with the second first. The great 16th century thinker known as the Maharal miPrag sheds light on it in his classic work, Gëvuroth Ha-Shem, revealing a very deep and esoteric insight.
He begins by quoting a midrash familiar to anyone who attends the Passover séder: “Rabbi Yossi says, Whence do you say that the Egyptians suffered ten blows (makkoth) and at the sea fifty makkoth? Concerning Egypt what does it say? ‘And the chartumim said to Pharaoh, It is the finger of G-d.’ (Exodus VIII,15). And at the sea what does it say? ‘And Israel saw the great hand which Ha-Shem made….’ How much were they afflicted by the finger? Ten makkoth, and at the sea they were afflicted fifty makkoth.” For Rabbi Yossi it appears to be a simple multiplication problem: ten makkoth per finger by five fingers yields fifty makkoth.
The Maharal then goes on to note that, although etzba‘, “finger,” occurs but once in the narrative, the word yad, “hand,” is used repeatedly (e.g., Exodus III,2; VII,5; amd IX,3 aside from our passage), distinguishing our passage from all the foregoing by noting that only in our instance does yad occur with the definire prefix ha-; “and it may be seen that they deduced from the expression hayad…that it connotes the entire hand, whereas in the case of each makka in Egypt proper they understood that He did the makka with an etzba‘ and called the part by the name of the whole.” Though G-d moved His entire hand, as it were, to deal each blow to the Egyptians, the blow itself was done with the flick of a finger, as it were. This was not the case at Yam Suf.
Why? “For the makkoth in Egypt proper were not coming to wipe out Egypt in totality; therefore the makkoth were but individual ones, and did not come by way of a collective generality, until at the sea. Then the Holy One, Blessed is He, wished to bring upon the Egyptians a collective makka, for He wished to punish Egypt for what they had done to Israel.”
The Maharal then explains how it was that Israel actually saw the apparition which the Torah terms hayad hagëdola, while they observed only the effect of the etzba‘ in the earlier series, not the etzba‘ itself, as due to the shëlémuth, “perfection,” inherent in the number five. He elucidates this shëlémuth through the metaphor of geometry.
The number one, he tells us, has no shëlémuth because it represents a single point, and therefore has no hithpashtuth, no dimensionality, at all. Two is little better, for it connotes two points laid side by side. Regardless of their direction, position, or distance, the only figure which can be drawn between two points is a line, which has dimensionality along its length alone. With four points properly laid out, though, it is possible to construct two sides of a square, and since it is a square, the entire area of the figure can be calculated along both its length and its breadth.
But the four points must be properly laid out, that is, the lines must be integrated and unified so as to make those measurements possible; “only by means of a mid-point which is inside them and a side in and of itself, and this is the fifth, which makes possible the unity of the area.”
The peculiar sanctity inherent in such an integrated and unified field, he adds, is illustrated by the mishna: “Whence do we learn that five men who sit down and are engaged in Torah, that the Divine Presence is among them? The teaching is to say, Va’aguddatho ‘al eretz yësadah (‘and He founded His band upon the Earth’; Amos IX,6; the mishna is from Avoth III,6). An agudda is not some random grouping of things thrown together, but rather one built around some principle of organization, as evidenced by other uses of the root, e.g. iggéd, “bind together, join, unite.” To my mind, this concept can be related to DeBroglie’s matter waves, in which a series of parameters – wavelength, amplitude, magnitude, frequency, and the like – are unified by the wave-form to create a unique entity which becomes susceptible to human perception. The Maharal’s integrated field, then, is the metaphysical origin of the matter wave, which becomes a physical phenomenon upon conscious perception.
With this in mind, the Maharal reconsiders the numbers: Rabbi Yossi’s calculation presupposes ten makkoth associated with each etzba‘, such that the five of them together result in fifty; what exactly does that mean?
The Maharal reminds us that we are resident in the world of teva‘, “nature”, and that therefore any phenomenon which we perceive as contra naturam must have its origins in the supernal realm which generated and maintains ours, “since thence come the miracles…and you will always find that the thing which is holy and utterly set apart is the tenth, for the tenth is always sacred to Ha-Shem. And here is not the place to elucidate the concept that the tenth is sacred. For this reason, when Ha-Shem brought the miracles from the holy world which is set apart to the world of material nature, they were ten…..”
For the sake of space, let us take the Maharal’s words for true without further comment, save to note the inherent sanctity with which the Torah invests the ma‘sér, the tenth part of all Israel’s crops, herds, flocks, and wealth.
In consideration of our first question, the Birkath Tov notes in the name of his father,the founder of the dynasty of Ozherov and another deep thinker, Rabbi Leibush haGadol, that Moshe, perceiving the palpable yir’a (“fear”) as Israel beheld the onrushing Egyptians, re-arranged the letters to change the equation and bring about rë’iya (“seeing, perception”).
As noted at the outset, the two words appear to share a primal root which (if it occurred in the Biblical corpus, which it does not) would be réysh-yud-alef. However, my ongoing research into the roots of the Holy Language shows that the secondary root derived from the primal by suffixation of silent hé is generally closest to the primal meaning (for example, the root gimmel-yud-lamed, which connotes movement in a rolling cyclical manner [cf. Psalms II,9; Proverbs VI,3] yields, gala, “roll off, move away”]. Our primal root, therefore, would seem to have something to do with perception.
The radical prefix yud, on the other hand, imparts directionality to the primal meaning. Yir’a runs the semantic gamut from “fear” through “wariness” to “awe,” and even “reverence.” Fixation on any phenomenon or entity which gains one’s attention, such that one’s perception is directed to it, can generate all of these emotions, even when the entity is not necessarily all that awe-inspiring to begin with; after all, the Egyptians conceived the ram, the male sheep, to be the avatar of their creator god. 210 years of involvement in the civilization of the Nile (whose ruined buildings inspire awe to this day), the last 80 of them in servile bondage to the Egyptians, had instilled all of these emotions in Israel; the sight of that massive army charging at them full tilt brought all of them to the fore.
Al tir’u, barked Moshe – “Fear not” – hithyatzvu urë’u eth yëshu‘ath Ha-Shem, “position yourselves and see Ha-Shem’s salvation.” He had to change their perception to break the spell; they had to look elsewhere. Vayar’ Yisra’él eth hayad hagëdola – “And Israel saw the great hand” — vayir’u ha‘am eth Ha-Shem – “and the people feared Ha-Shem.”
Rearranging the letters of the Holy Language had changed the direction of their perception with all of the accompanying emotions. Ki asher rë’ithem eth Mitzrayim hayom lo’ thosifu lir’otham ‘od ‘ad ‘olam (“For as you have seen Egypt today, you will not continue to see them, ever more.”)
A basic principle in the underlying scheme of how the universe actually works had been revealed.