Lets not forget those who died so we could be free on this day

Shabbat, Passover Day 7

Exodus 13:17-15:26

Numbers 28:19-25

II Samuel 22:1-51

“In every generation, one must see oneself as if they went forth from Egypt.” The haggadah’s teaching is behind the rituals and foods of the seder and Passover’s emphasis on asking questions (which only free people can safely ask). As we approach the end of this Pesach holiday, we continue to re-live the Exodus. Our Torah reading includes the song our ancestors sang as they crossed the sea on dry land and watched the waters close over and drown their Egyptian pursuers, ensuring physical freedom.

Imagine yourself as an Israelite walking on dry land in the split sea: “The waters of the sea formed a wall for them on the right and on the left” (Exodus 14:22). What would this miracle have looked like as you marched by? What would you have seen? Would the water have looked like ice? Or would you have been able to see the fish, still swimming, within the water?

About 2,000 years ago, our Sages debated the details of the song of the sea: What were these walls of water like? Rabbi Yochanan answered, “The walls of water were like lattices.” A woman, Serach bat Asher, then stood up and proclaimed to those present, “No, it wasn’t like that! The walls were not like lattices, they were more like solid walls that had windows out of which the Israelites could see” (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana 11:14).

This midrash is pretty amazing — a woman popping up in a third-century classroom, challenging one of the day’s greatest scholars, on one of the most central narratives of our tradition!

Serach bat Asher was not just any woman. Her name appears twice in the Torah, in the list of those who went down to Egypt with our patriarch Jacob and again in the Israelites’ wilderness census 400 years later. In rabbinic literature, Serach bat Asher lived throughout all those generations — and apparently even then never died. She was around to contest Rabbi Yochanan.

Serach bat Asher is not simply challenging this sage. She is emphasizing a profound difference between latticework and windows. She questions: Were the walls of water in the sea which created a path for the Israelites to walk through to freedom easy to see through, like a window, or did the Israelites need to search out, find and closely peer through the smaller openings in the latticework of the water in order to observe beyond the walls?

The distinction becomes important when we consider what the Israelites were seeing. Fish? Seaweed? Coral? What else was in the sea? The pursuing Egyptians. Did the Israelites have to pause, at least mentally and emotionally, in the midst of their freedom journey to face and acknowledge the fear, pain and violence occurring to others right beside them?

The narrative directly answers “yes” as the Israelites step out of the waters: “Then, Israel saw Egypt die on the shores of the sea” (Ex. 14:30). As they were still marching to freedom, the not-yet-redeemed locked eyes with Egypt, if just for a moment, as Egypt drowned in the sea. The Hebrew slaves saw; they shared in Egypt’s pain.

Now, whenever we attempt to understand the experience of our liberation from slavery to freedom, we confront those Egyptians, pursuing us, being drowned and ultimately lying dead on the shore. The Egyptians, and their very different experience from our own, cannot be extracted from our memory. We are to learn that a people moving from slavery to freedom must see the pain of the other. We need to understand that others also have a narrative to tell.

There is much evil, much pain and much slavery still in our world. May we all take on the mantle of those who came before us, our biblical, rabbinic and modern age heroes, and do our part to bring those still enslaved to freedom — and may we be able to remove the world’s evil and injustice in such a way that all of us are elevated and brought to freedom and liberty together. Shabbat shalom and chag sameach.

Rabbi Michelle Fisher is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.