A Night of Watching
A Pesach sermon by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander

"And it came to pass at the end of 430 years that the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.

Leyl shimurim hu lashem. It was a night of watching unto the Lord for delivering them out of the land of Egypt. "This same night is a night of watching unto the Lord for all the children of Israel throughout their generations." (Exodus 12, 41-42)

During this week of our Passover festival we of the House of Israel have added one more link to the long, unbroken chain which our ancestors forged over 3000 years ago to memorialize our liberation from Egyptian bondage. The relevance of this ancient and ageless Festival of Freedom to our times is altogether too obvious, for even to this very day servitude and slavery agonize the life of millions of people.

But there is one dramatic episode in this Biblical account which seems quite irrelevant to life realities today. It is the miracle at the Sea of Reeds or Red Sea. The thrilling, exciting scene which depicts how the children of Israel managed to get across that threatening body of water -- that tense and terse chapter in the Book of Exodus which is the scriptural portion assigned for the seventh day of Passover: The Song of the Red Sea.

A little boy once came home from Hebrew school and Grandpa asked him "What did you learn about today?"

"Well," he said, "teacher told us about Moses and the Children of Israel and the Red Sea!"

"What about them?" Grandpa wanted to know.

"You see, gramps -- the Jews were slaves in Egypt for a long time when Moses came along and organized them. They had sit down strikes and demonstrations. To make it short, they made so much trouble for Pharaoh that he finally gave up and let them go. They got as far as the Red Sea and pitched camp to rest. Moses sent up some of his reconnaissance planes -- he didn't trust Pharaoh. Sure 'nough they spotted Pharaoh's army. The pilots judged that there were about 600 tanks with high powered rifles, backed up by a large number of half tracks, artillery and infantry. All of this was reported to Moses immediately. He ordered his engineers to throw a pontoon bridge across the Red Sea. He set up road blocks to slow down the tanks and armed a rear guard with bazookas to hold up Pharaoh's forces as long as possible. When the Jews were all on the other side and the Egyptians were half way across the bridge, Moses ordered his demolition squad to dynamite it. The Egyptians and their tanks were drowned in the waters and the Jews were saved."

"Oh come on, Abie, is that what your teacher told you?" Grandpa protested in amazement.

"No..." Abie replied, "but Grandpa, if I told you what the teacher really told us -- you'd never believe it!"

The miracles at the Red Sea are truly amazing and enjoyed the imagination of artists, poets, and preachers in all ages. You know, of course, the synopsis of this miraculous account. Under the leadership of Moses, a vast and motley horde of slaves, through Divine intervention won their freedom from bondage and in the dark of the night fled from Egypt -- only to discover that Pharaoh and his charioteers were in hot pursuit. Behind them, they hear the thundering roll of racing chariots. Before them they see the surging waves of the deep. On either side is the forbidding desert. The people became mesmerized with fear. What should they do in this terrible predicament?

The sages in our Midrashic literature fill us in on the details. "See, we told you not to bother us," they taunted Moses. As usual in such a case kitot, kitot na'asu -- factions were created. One group urged immediate surrender to Pharaoh with a plea for mercy -- better to live in slavery than to be free and dead. Another faction suggested "let's throw ourselves into the sea." They urged genocide. A third counseled battle -- better to die as a hero than to live as a coward. Moses turned in prayer to God.

Whereupon God said to Moses Daber el B'nai Yisrael v'yissu -- "Speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward." The rabbis expatiate on this cryptic order and teach that God told Moses, "There is a time for prayer and a time for action. When the enemy is almost upon you is no time for prayer but for action. There is no alternative. Tell the children of Israel to go forward!"


"Into the sea, of course."

Little could they imagine that the waters would open before them and "they walked on dry land in the midst of the sea." The pursuing Egyptians rushed their mounts after them, but the walls of water collapsed over horse, chariot, and rider. The children of Israel stood in awe at the wondrous miracle God had wrought and burst forth into song -- "The Lord is my strength. He has become my salvation."

Whether we accept the miracle in all its literalness as a matter of faith, or reject it as mere folklore of the imagining mind and believing heart, there is still the question: What is it trying to tell us? What can we make of it?

It is not, in my judgment, simply trying to give the story of the Exodus a more dramatic effect, but rather to set forth a historic truth which manifests itself over and over again in the experiences of our people. It is not just an account of an incident in the distant past, but a historical truth which threads through our march across the centuries of time and the continents of the world.

By all laws of nature and logic of history we Jews should not have succeeded in walking across the Red Sea nor should we have survived the crossings in the angry waters of history. Together with the Chaldeans and Assyrians, with the Hittites and Phoenicians, together with the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and Romans, we should have drowned in the sea of oblivion and now occupy a niche in the museum of extinct peoples and religions. How many nations in the world today can look back on more than forty centuries of uninterrupted history?

How many have had the will to live under the most terrifying conditions? How many have forged their bridge across history over the most unspeakable tyranny and torture? How many hacked their way through the jungle of Egyptian bondage, Assyrian oppression, Roman persecution, Spanish inquisition, Russian pogroms, or German extermination camps?

The Jewish people, small, weak, harassed and disturbed, managed to cross all raging torrents which threatened to engulf them and retain their identity as a people. We Jews crossed every barrier however forbidding and foreboding. Rising tides of persecution not only failed to submerge our identity as a people, but failed also to drown out our creative vitality. Neither slavery, nor tyranny, nor cruelty perpetrated against us, generation after generation, could destroy us physically or degrade us morally. We crossed on dry land.

My friends -- Once again we find ourselves on the banks of a raging sea -- with the enemy hard upon us. Three times the Arab military might would annihilate the State of Israel and the Jewish people. Three times in two decades the modern Pharaoh Gamal Abdel Nasser threatened to convert Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and other settlements into abattoirs flowing with Jewish blood. For the third time, the Arab leaders, having lost touch with reality, refuse to accept the decision rendered on the battlefield and would turn their defeat into a glorious victory. The Arabs have called upon the Powers to pull their nuts out of the fire. The State of Israel has let it be known that there can be no alternative to direct Arab-Israel negotiation.

In this crisis the American Jewish community faces the spectre of rising Black anti-Semitism. It is even more disturbing since we believed that we were secure at last from the fangs of this poisonous serpent. Both of these threats call for alertness and action. The Passover eve is referred to in the Bible as leyl shimurim -- "a night of watchfulness." The Jewish people are at the end of the line. There is no choice, there must be a breakthrough, for on the other side is the bottomless pit.

We must stand firm against intrusion upon our American form of democracy against Black extremists and White demagogues. Furthermore, we must give our support to the State of Israel through bonds and UJA contributions.

Finally, we must man the ramparts, that the State of Israel be not shortchanged on the international exchange of intrigue by the present four-power conference. Pressure in Washington must be constant against a sellout for expediency.

The Passover is characterized in our Torah as "a night of watching unto the Lord for the children of Israel throughout their generations." Watchfulness denotes purposefulness -- our security -- our very survival will depend upon our vigilance. We dare not fall into the trap of the lamented German Jewish community who looked upon Hitler's Nazis as a mere demented minority group who would never be entrusted with power.

We cannot be sanguine of the dangers in our communities or to the State of Israel -- our fates are intertwined and inseparable. Neither can we afford to despair. Eso einai el he-harim -- "I lift my eyes unto the mountains." But Passover above all calls for a spirit faith breeding confidence.

Hinei lo yanum v'lo yishan shomer Yisrael -- "The Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers." The storms assail us but we shall yet come forth dry shod into a better tomorrow.

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