With Passover coming to a close, the recounting of our journey from slavery to liberation is nearly complete. The 7th day of Passover is traditionally marked as the day of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, the climactic act which sealed the freedom of the Israelites. The Torah reading that is associated with this day is from Exodus chapters 13-15, the retelling of the biblical story.
Throughout the week of Passover there are scriptural readings associated with each day. They either recount aspects of the story, or quote passages in the Torah that talk about the observance of the Passover festival. (The holiday cycle is repeated several times throughout Torah.) You can find a list of the Torah readings here.
The readings vary somewhat when you factor Shabbat into the mix. This year there are two Shabbatot over Passover, other years there is one. When there is one Shabbat, the Torah reading assigned for that day begins at Exodus 33:12:
Moses said to God, “See, You say to me, ‘Lead this people forward,’ but You have not made known to me whom You will send with me. Further, You have said, ‘I have singled you out by name, and you have, indeed, gained My favor.’ Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. Consider, too, that this nation is Your people.” And God said, “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.” And he said to God, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?”
So, first, to point out in full disclosure, that since the first and last days of Passover fall on Shabbat, we don’t read these verses this year. But it is an interesting exchange and worth noting as part of our traditional scriptural readings.
This exchange between Moses and God is fascinating, and even moreso when we put it in to the context of the narrative. This is taking place right after the story of the Golden Calf after the Israelites left Egypt and went to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. While Moses was up on the mountain, the Israelites got anxious and scared and created an idol to worship. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for anyone after Moses descends the mountain, smashes the tablets of the Law, and punishes the people.
After that episode, Moses is summoned back up to the mountain to get a new set of tablets. Moses is clearly frustrated as this exchange attests. Moses demands God give him help, since he is leading God’s people. He also demands God show him more of his divine essence, as a way of building confidence and trust.
Why bring in this challenging episode during Passover, when we celebrate our liberation? Why allude to the Golden Calf and its aftermath, the testy relationship between Moses and God? On its face, the reason we read this on Passover is because a bit later in the text we have another reference to the festival and when and how to celebrate it. Indeed, when Shabbat does not fall in the middle of the week of Passover, we read the same section of text, but skip this part between God and Moses.
But there is perhaps something more here. For during the week of Passover we are focused on the immediate experience of liberation–the breaking of the chains and the walk to freedom. Crossing the Sea, which we mark today, is the final act, and the waters closing behind the Israelites seals the deal. It is an important story and paradigm to tell, and one that is rightfully celebratory.
And once that immediate joy passes, we must remember that there is still work to be done. The work of maintaining that liberation, of creating a new reality, is long and difficult. After the initial euphoria is over, challenges remain. Recounting this story of the testy exchange between God and Moses reminds us of this.
So as we joyfully mark the crossing of the Sea, and all the crossings we experience this Passover, let us recommit to the difficult road ahead, to the ongoing work of redemption.