Sunday, April 16, 2006

Pesah - Seventh Day (Hasidism)

“When You Split the Red Sea, Your Children Saw the Great Hand, and they Were Awed”

In Hasidic teaching, the Seventh Day of Pesah is possibly the most joyous point of the entire festival, the high point and climax of the entire week of Passover—and paradoxically, considering that it is lacking in the drama and solemnity of the Seder held on the first night, and is not even marked by any special prayer of the likes of Tefillat Tal said on the first day (see below). Most Hasidim gather in the synagogue or Study House on this night after the evening meal, a little before midnight, to relive the moment of crossing the Reed Sea by spilling some water on the floor, symbolically representing the sea, and dancing through it, singing phrases from the Siddur and verses from the Song. Leaving aside the childlike naivete of using a small cup of water to represent the mighty sea, there is something very impressive about these nocturnal celebrations. I once visited the court of the late Bobover Rebbe in Brooklyn on the Seventh night of Pesah. All of those gathered in the Beis-Medrash—five hundred Hasidim, or more—linked hands in a single human chain, which curled and coiled around like a snake, singing over and over again: Bevakakha Yam Suf, amkha ra’u, hayad hag’dola, va-yira’u: “When you split the Red Sea, your people saw the great hand, and they were in awe.” The Rebbe—at the time a man in his 60’s, a magnificent, handsome figure, with erect, noble bearing, snow white beard and payot, clothed in splendid robes—linked hands with his Hasidim, occasionally making sweeping gestures with his free hand. At the conclusion of the dance, he sat down at the head of the festive table and spoke, in a voice filled with wonder, of the great joy at the Sea: Milyonen fun Yidd’n tantz’n in yam: “Millions of Jews dancing in the Sea!”

On other occasions, I have visited Yeshivat ha-Matmidim, on the edge of Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim. There, hundreds of yeshiva students and older men gather around long tables to sing a series of favorite songs from the Haggadah: Vehi She’amdah, Dayeinu, Betzeit Yisrael, Ehad mi Yodea, Had Gadya—using the special melodies of the old-time Jerusalem community. Then, at midnight, all the benches are cleared away, and one of their number leads them in the recitation, verse by verse, of the Song of the Sea, followed by hours of ecstatic dancing. In both these places, I felt the special quality of Hasidic joy, and a sense that, whereas the Seder, held on the first night, is the celebration of the Exodus within the bosom of the (often extended) family, with the emphasis on teaching and telling and understanding, these gatherings are a kind of celebration on the public, communal level, expressed in pure joy.

Something of this is conveyed in the following short teaching from the Sefat Emet, Pesah, 5660 [1900], s.v. ba-midrash samkhuni:

In the Midrash, we read: “Sustain me with raisin cakes [ashishot]” [Song of Songs 2:5]—with fire from above and below [a word-play on ashishot, as if it were the plural of esh, fire], the Written Torah and the Oral Torah; see there. And the verse concludes, “For I am lovesick.” That is, that the Jewish person must have within himself an essential love for God, without any [external] assistance, like the patriarchs, who did not yet have the Torah, but love burned within their heart, to be attached to the Holy One blessed be He. But because of the lovesickness, we need assistance from the fire that is above and below, the two Torahs. And a similar thing is said in the book Hovot ha-Levavot.

The point of departure for this teaching is, not the Torah, but the love for God that exists within the person’s soul simply by virtue of his being human, or in any event Jewish. The “lovesickness” is not seen as a virtue, expressive of the intensity of the person’s love, but as in some sense a shortcoming, requiring the correction or “assistance” provided by the Torah. The implication seems to be that, were a person to have a strong but somehow “healthy” love for God, perhaps he would not need the Torah at all!

And this Song that was sung at the Sea testifies to this, for they brought out [i.e., uttered] from within their hearts an entire parashah (section) of the Torah before receiving the Torah, for by means of their coming to faith in God, there was revealed the inner love of God that was in the very essence of the souls of the children of Israel. And similarly it is stated in the Midrash that the Torah and Israel preceded the world, and that the thought [of creating] Israel preceded even the Torah; see there, in Parshat Bereshit [Gen. Rab. 1.4, in the name of R. Shmuel b. Yitzhak; and cf. Avot 6.10]. And the Song of the Sea was a preparation for the Torah and mitzvot that were given them later.

The Song of the Sea, recited on this day millennia ago, was a kind of spontaneous expression of the love for God that came from the very essence of their inner souls. For that reason, it enjoyed the privilege of being recorded in the Torah [Exodus 15:1-21], a book whose contents are otherwise almost exclusively Divinely revealed. This, again, emphasizes the importance of the human input, specifically, the human faith in and love for God, as determinative religious moments—a point frequently made by the Sefat Emet. The idea that Torah and Israel (significant here mostly as the carriers of this soul quality of spontaneous inner love for God) both equally precede the Creation relates to this point. (It should be noted that R. Leib Alter quotes the above-cited midrash selectively, to support the view that “Israel precedes Torah”; there are other views in the same section that argue the exact opposite idea; but such selective quoting is of course perfectly valid in homilies of this type.)

The teaching concludes with an intricate word-play on another verse from Song of Songs, summing up the basic ideas:

And it says in the midrash, “I am a lily [some translate here ‘rose’ or ‘crocus’] of the Sharon,” [Song 2:1]: that I made for him a shade in the desert [a pun on havetzelet, tzel]. “Of the Sharon”: that I recited before Him song [shir] at the Sea. That is, that by means of the song that they sang, “And I shall praise him,” [Exod 15:2; ve-anveihu], that they longed to build Me a sanctuary [naveh], they merited to make for Me a shade and a sanctuary.


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