More American Jews attend a Passover Seder than observe any other Jewish ritual. How do we know? The Pew Research Center tells us.[i]
But how many observe the Seventh Day of Passover? I don’t believe that Pew Research even asks. Our synagogues may hold services, largely attended by those observing yizkor. One could be forgiven for concluding that the seventh day of Passover is a day of mournful memory. But it’s not.
After ordaining the first day of Passover as a holy day, Torah commands, “…and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done…”[ii] Exodus offers no explanation for the holiness of the seventh day. The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, provides a plausible theory: “The seventh day is the day of Pharaoh’s drowning and being rendered powerless.”[iii] Passover’s final festive day, then, celebrates the anniversary of the fulfillment of our ancestors’ freedom.
In our own lives, we experience “first day” liberations very much in need of “seventh days.” We feel free when we extricate ourselves from harmful addictions, toxic relationships, or soul-numbing employment. And yet, we may be experience the anxiety of Israelites being chased by Pharaoh’s armies until we are firmly established in new, healthier behaviors, loving relationships or meaningful work. Only then do we know the liberation that our ancestors celebrated on the east bank of the sea. In our Jewish people’s 20th Century history, Holocaust survivors were liberated when the Allies were victorious. They were not truly free until the newborn State of Israel had prevailed in its War of Independence – or, more likely, until survivors were comfortably settled in Israel, America, Canada, and other lands of refuge.
We who diminish our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, though, may be ambivalent about celebrating the day that Pharaoh and his chariots were drowned in the sea. Eliahu Kitov argues, “Holidays were not given to Israel to mark the downfall of [our] enemies…The essence of the celebration of this day is the song that Moses [, Miriam,] and Israel were Divinely inspired to sing on this day.”[iv]
The significance of the seventh day of Passover is as profound as it is complicated. Often, our greatest moments of liberation come at others’ expense. Nevertheless, we are permitted, and even commanded, to celebrate.
We rejoice when we’ve landed that dream job, even as we are aware that means that somebody else was passed over. We love coming in first, even knowing that somebody else came in last.
The next Jewish celebration after the seventh day of Passover will be Yom HaAtzma’ut. This year’s a big one, Israel’s 70th. We have long known that Palestinians mark that day as naqba, the catastrophe. They’re right. The very day we celebrate was and is catastrophic for the Palestinian people. Like Seder-goers diminishing our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, we would do well to take Israel’s milestone birthday as an occasion to explore the depths of the disaster that Palestinians experience and to imagine how that damage can be assuaged without unduly diminishing our people’s miracle. Then, let us wave our flags and celebrate, rejoicing as our ancestors did at the shores of the sea and as we do on Passover’s final festive day.
Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.
[i] “Attending a Seder is common practice for American Jews,” Factank News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, April 14, 2014, April 14, 2014.
[ii] Exodus 12:16.
[iii] Ibn Ezra’s commentary to Exodus 12:16.
[iv] Eliyahu Kitov, “The Seventh Day of Passover,” Chabad.org, not dated.