Pesach 5777

To change one’s nature[1]

הים ראה וינס הירדן יסב לאחור
The Reed Sea[2] saw and ran away, the Jordan River turned backwards[3]

During the holiday of Pesach (as well as every other holiday), we recite Hallel during the morning prayers. It consists of chapters 113 to 118 from Psalms. Chapter 114 describes how when the Jews left Egypt, nature was entirely subservient to them. Nothing stood in their way. Most pronounced was the miracle of the splitting of the sea. On the seventh day of Pesach, we commemorate this event with the Torah Reading being the Song at Sea that the Jews recited[4] after this miracle.  In Psalms the sea is described as “running away” from the Jews, meaning that it split in two, after seeing something. What did it see that made it split? Chazal teach us that it was the coffin[5] of Yosef[6]. When Yosef was dying, he commanded his brothers and their descendants to ensure when the Jews are redeemed from Egypt that his remains be taken to the land of Israel to be buried there[7]. The Torah describes that it was Moshe who brought the coffin of Yosef with him to the sea[8].

What’s astounding is the circumstances surrounding this miracle. The entire Jewish people were at the sea, with the Egyptians coming behind them to kill them[9]. Moshe, who performed all of the ten plagues, was commanded by Hashem to raise his staff and split the sea[10]. You would think that he was the catalyst to this miracle, but Chazal say that the sea didn’t want to listen to him[11]. It claimed that the sea was created on the third day of creation, whereas Man was only created on the sixth day. This meant that Man was subservient to the sea, not the other way around. However, once the sea saw the coffin of Yosef, it was compelled to split. If the sea didn’t want to listen to Moshe, the leader of the Jewish people, who performed all of those miracles, what was so special about Yosef that it split in his merit?

When the sea was created, it was given a specific nature. Without deviation, seas have tides, they have waves. There’s constant motion. Since it was purposely created to follow a pattern of nature, it’s not right that the sea should all of a sudden abandon that. To be split into solid walls[12], without motion, is completely against its nature. It’s never done this before, so why should it start now? This is why there was the need for the merit of a great person, who himself broke his own nature.

Chazal explain the significance of the coffin of Yosef[13]. When Yosef was sold as a slave in Egypt, he was sold to the Chief Butcher in Egypt, Potiphar[14]. Yosef was so successful at his job that he was promoted to be in charge of his master’s house. Potiphar’s wife developed a strong attraction to Yosef, and she repeatedly made attempts to seduce him. He absolutely refused, not wanting to be complicit in adultery. Finally, when they were alone in the house, she grabbed hold of his clothing and demanded he be with her. Yosef felt he had no choice and left his clothing with her and ran away. Chazal say that because he ran away from the wife of Potiphar, the sea “ran away” and split for the Jewish people.

Yosef’s resilience is astonishing. This woman made repeated attempts to seduce him, trying different tactics. She wore different enticing clothing both day and night[15]. She offered him a fortune in gold. Then, when they were finally alone, she pulled on his clothing. Yosef was only seventeen years old at the time. Despite all of this, he ran away, overcoming his desire and destroying his nature. Therefore, when the sea saw the coffin of Yosef, who destroyed his own nature and ran away, it too broke its nature and “ran away”, splitting in two.

This is one of the teachings of Pesach. Everyone and everything has its unique nature. While nature has rules that aren’t normally broken, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The entire Exodus from Egypt was making the impossible into reality. A person is born with innate qualities. However, that doesn’t mean that change is hopeless. The story of Yosef, while astounding, could be applied to our own lives. There are things we can work on to change; we can overcome our innate nature.

Good Shabbos and Chag Kasher VeSameach!


[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Exodus 14:21

[2] This verse is referring to the ים סוף, often translated as the Red Sea, but more correctly as the Reed Sea

[3] Psalms 114:3

[4] Exodus 15:1-18. This is because the sea split on the Jews’ seventh day of their journey

[5] Literally: the bones of Yosef

[6] Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 14:15; Bereishis Rabbah 87:8; Midrash Tehillim 114. It’s actually a big dispute in whose merit the sea split: in Shemos Rabbah 21:8 it’s stated as either Avraham, Yaakov, or Moshe and in Sotah 37a (with Mahasha ad. loc) it’s either the tribe of Binyomin or Nachshon Ben Aminadav’s act of jumping in the sea that caused it

[7] Genesis 50:24

[8] Exodus 13:9

[9] Ibid 14:10

[10] Ibid verse 16

[11] Mechilta D’Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai 15:19

[12] Exodus 14:22

[13] In the Midrash loc. cit.

[14] Genesis 39

[15] Yoma 35b

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