From Goshen to the Sea: Passover as the In-Between

red seaThis coming Monday is (unofficially) Red Sea Crossing Day.

We mark Passover at this time of year because this is the time of the events of the Exodus as recounted in the Torah. According to the Torah the march out of Egypt began on the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Passover. It was on this day that Pharaoh, after the tenth and final plague resulted in the death of the first born of Egypt, told Moses that he and the Israelites are free to leave.

As the story goes, after marching out of Egypt the Israelites were brought to the Red Sea. Pharaoh, regretting his decision, amassed his army to chase after the Israelites. Facing a vast body of water in front of them and an approaching army behind, the Israelites appealed to Moses and God for help. Moses and God then split the sea in two, allowing the Israelites to cross through on dry land and drowning the approaching army. It is the climactic moment of this epic story of liberation and redemption.

The traditional anniversary of the crossing of the Red Sea is the seventh day of Passover, which is Monday (beginning Sunday night). It was on this day that the Israelites finalized their liberation from bondage and permanently left Egypt behind. (“Will the last person leaving Egypt please turn out the lights?”) With the physical crossing of the sea the Israelites also spiritually and emotionally crossed into a new chapter of their national saga and development. It is such an important episode of the entire Exodus narrative that reference to it is found in most prayer services (“mi chamocha”).

So while we celebrate the entire story of the Exodus on Passover, the holiday does span a specific time period of the story: from the time the Israelites left Goshen, where the they lived in Egypt, to and through the Red Sea. And while the overall theme of Passover and the Exodus is freedom, during this specific time of the story the Israelites were not completely free-the emancipation had been proclaimed, but they were still in Egypt. It was only after crossing the Sea that we can say they were truly out of Egypt.

Thus while we look at Passover as a celebration of redemption and transformation, it is also a marking of that liminal and dangerous period of in-between on the way to that redemption and transformation. Passover marks that period between leaving what one knows and approaching what will be known. Passover marks that necessary period of transition that bridges enslavement and emancipation.

Our Christian brothers and sisters are celebrating Holy Week this week, recounting the events of the crucifixion (on Good Friday) and resurrection (on Easter Sunday) of Jesus. In regards to the season, my friend and colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters of the United Churches of Olympia recently wrote that while Christians recount and remember the resurrection on Easter, it is done while still living in a “Good Friday world.” In other words, Easter represents the world as it could be and Good Friday represents the world as it is.

Which brought me to wonder–what about Saturday? What is the Christian theological “mood” of the time between the crucifixion and resurrection? It is, as Elsa put it, “the time between the worst thing that could happen and the possibility that we can live again.” It is a necessary time; one can not go directly from one to the other. Within Christian thought and practice too is this notion of a liminal and dangerous period of in-between.

Judaism has the notion of sacred time, such as the weekly Shabbat. But sacred time is not limited to just a day at a time. Judaism has the notion of sacred time span as well-certain extended periods of time have significance. We have the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but we also have the month of Elul immediately preceding to prepare for these events, and the 10 Days of Repentance between the two. We have Passover and Shavuot (the festival celebrating the gift of Torah and covenant), but we also have the Omer, the seven week period linking these two holidays. And as we have noted, several of the holidays themselves-such as Passover-are not limited to just a day.

Remembering these spans of time reminds us that so much of our spiritual lives are lived not in the moment, but in the movement. Not at the ends, but in the middle. We live much of our lives in the scary center, the fragile and liminal places. While we seek transformation, and sometimes find it, the process is not immediate, and we must learn to be comfortable with the idea of becoming.

All the moreso when we remember the story of Passover through the eyes of Pharaoh, who was less of an actor than one upon whom life acted upon. Life is not always fair to us, and we many times find ourselves in those middle places not by choice but by necessity.

Passover does not mark slavery and it does not mark freedom; it marks the transition between the two. As we conclude the festival in the coming days, as we walk through the muck and mud at the bottom of the sea and watch the waters close up behind us, we end one journey but begin another. And we are mindful that as we do, we move not from one end point to another, but rather one in-between space to another.

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