Portion of the Week / A Story of Suspense and Action

Every year, Jews celebrate the departure of the Israelites at the Passover Seder; the story of the exodus is like a suspense movie whose end is already known at the start.

Yakov Meir
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Yakov Meir

That great master of suspense, director Alfred Hitchcock, once summed up his art as follows: A scene in which a man and a woman are eating dinner in a restaurant and a bomb suddenly explodes under the table will shock the audience. The shock will dissipate soon, but it is necessary to draw out the tension beforehand to grab the audience's attention. They must see the ticking bomb and watch the couple eating - only then, Hitchcock observed, will they be able to sense and experience the action.

The story of the Exodus is crafted like a suspense movie whose end is already known at the start. The Ten Plagues are visited upon Egypt in an orderly fashion, ranging from the least harsh to the most severe, with the final plague of the killing of the firstborn being carried out by God himself, who passes from house to house. The moment the Egyptians are hit by this plague, the Israelites depart - an event that is perpetuated for future generations and celebrated each year at the Passover seder.

From “The Ten Plagues,” “Wild Animals” and “Locusts,” Jacob Steinhardt (1921).Credit: Jacon Steinhardt

Hitchcock's comments are relevant here: Indeed, had the Exodus taken the form of a single, one-time, immediate event, its effect would have been diminished. But the custom of following every stage, every plague as it unfolds, engages each participant in the seder emotionally despite his status as an onlooker; it forces him to tensely await the happy ending that he knows will occur. But following the developments in the Haggadah also does something else: It frees the reader from his passivity and impels him to be an active participant in the story.

Tomorrow, the last Sabbath before Passover, is Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. Many commentators over the years have tried to explain the origins of this name, which most certainly is connected to the special haftarah chanted on this day, as explained by Rabbi Solomon Luria in the 16th century. The haftarah prepares us for redemption on Passover eve: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord" (Malachi 3:23 ). The "great day of the Lord" is not the festival of Passover itself, rather the day of future redemption that Malachi's prophecy paints in apocalyptic colors. Apparently, the redemption will happen on Passover and that is why we call tomorrow Shabbat Hagadol: It is the Sabbath heralding the redemption.

From “The Ten Plagues,” “Wild Animals” and “Locusts,” Jacob Steinhardt (1921).Credit: Jacob Steinhardt

Although the Exodus from Egypt proceeds at a set rate, in "pulses," there is a gap during which preparations must be made before the 10th plague; after the penultimate plague of darkness, the reader of the story feels as if the linear progression has ground to a halt. God, who until now has appeared at every stage, suddenly hides his face and Moses prepares the Children of Israel for the plague of the firstborn. God himself - rather than an angel or seraph, as we read in the Haggadah - will descend to Egypt and unleash the last plague, from which the Israelites will protect themselves via "magic" means: the smearing of the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the "two side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it" (Exodus 12:7 ).

The last plague, powerful in its totality and severity, is preceded by a gradual, tension-filled period of some days, the quiet before the storm. These are days of profound darkness before the sunrise, of muscles flexing before the arrow is shot. Days when an empty abyss yawns in advance of the appearance of the absolute, divine presence. The reader, who is caught up in the process, feels somewhat dissatisfied now: The tension does not subside and redemption has not yet arrived. Instead, there is a period of waiting, "and ye shall keep it unto the fourteenth day of the same month" (Exod. 12:6 ), during which the Israelites are to prepare for the great day.

Meanwhile, Moses defines the limits of the waiting period: "And Moses said: 'Thus saith the Lord: About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt'" (Exod. 11:4 ). He asks the Israelites to use this time for various activities: to borrow vessels from the Egyptians; to take a lamb, guard it, then slaughter it and smear its blood on the doorposts; to eat the roasted meat with matza and bitter herbs, while preparing to depart Egypt "with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste" (Exod. 12:11 ); and so forth.

Moses' instructions pertain not just to Pesach mitzrayim (literally, the first Passover - the festival celebrated while the Israelites were still in Egypt ), but also to Pesach dorot (the Passover of the ages - that is, the Passover of posterity, the Passover that has been celebrated annually since the Exodus ). He explains how the Jews should celebrate the departure from Egypt, which at that point had not yet occurred, from now on and for all posterity; his remarks are actually intended less for the Israelites who are about to leave, and more for their descendants in every generation - for us, the readers of this great story.

Fulfillment of Moses' directives thus fills up the space before the great moment. God's presence does not allow a person to act: When he turns the Nile's waters into blood, causes the frogs to disperse everywhere or goes from house to house and kills the firstborn, a person can only sit quietly in his home, which has been protected with the blood of the Passover sacrifice, and wait. We readers, as well, can only stand silent in awe; while emotionally involved in what is happening, we are passive. However, when God is "gathered into his place," as it were, and prepares to launch the plague of the firstborn, the door is opened for a person to act.

Will God actually come and take the nation out of Egypt? This tension-filled period of anticipation is filled with action that is of benefit both to the Israelites in Egypt as they celebrate the Passover of Egypt, and to us, as we read the story and observe the Passover of future generations.

There is something about following instructions and doing things that helps a person deal with suspense, allowing him to remain perhaps in one place and yet know he is not idle or indifferent, but rather involved in important preparatory action. The empty time just before the plague of the firstborn draws the person into the story, almost forcing him to act and abandon his passivity.

Shabbat Hagadol is not great in itself, per se, rather it signifies the period preceding the "great day of the Lord," symbolizing the present in which God is absent, the moment before the final act, about which the audience knows in advance. But that last scene in the story is delayed, and a person must in the meantime get up and do things with his own two hands. The "greatness" lies, therefore, not in the day but perhaps in the person, and that may also be a good way to describe the ritual we observe on Passover as it was molded over time, right up to the present day.

This festival signifies not only what is seen as the first redemption, but also the final redemption, which will take place sometime in the future. Similarly, the reality in which we sit together as a family to celebrate Passover reflects the space and time between the first revelation and the last, and is filled with action. Shabbat Hagadol is the road leading to release, the moment before the suspense is relieved, the moment when a person is expected to get up and actively enter the story.

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