Poor 7oP. The Seventh Day of Passover seems to get no respect, despite its being a bona fide biblical holiday. It has no special custom, command or ceremony all its own. Compare this to the end of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret; the Talmud (Sukka 48a) already enumerates six special traits of the day in Temple times, to which another half-dozen have been added in the two millennia since. Meanwhile, 7oP remains forlorn, a sort of Anticlimaxodus.
True, tradition tells us (specifically, R. Hanina bar Papa in Talmud Sota 12b) that the 21st of Nisan was the day of the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the subsequent Song of the Sea. But this sequel to the Ten Plagues feels a bit underwhelming: once again, the Israelites face hardened-heart Pharaoh; once again, Moses raises his staff; once again, God performs a miracle; once again, the Israelites are spared and the Egyptians are smitten (but not in a good way). However, since we celebrate at the Seder as freemen, it’s hard to muster up much emotion about Pharaoh 2.0. Instead, he seems to fit into the familiar pattern of “They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.”
But I would like to argue that the events of the Seventh Day are in fact vital and integral to our Passover experience. A week ago, Eylon Aslan-Levy posted “The Ten Plagues and the Ethics of Modern Warfare,” in which he argues that “For Moses, the Death of the Firstborn was the nuclear option.” I have a number of issues with the piece, but first and foremost, I am dismayed by the portrayal of the Slaying of the Firstborn as some sort of weapon of mass destruction, introducing lethal force into the equation for the first time.
The fact is that in their first appearance before Pharaoh (Ex. 5:3), Moses and Aaron already use threatening language: “And they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has met with us: let us go, we pray you, three days’ journey into the desert, and sacrifice unto the Lord our God; lest he fall upon us with pestilence, or with the sword.'” As the Plagues strike Egypt, it’s very hard to imagine that there were no casualties from the week-long lack of drinking water, the invasion by wild animals, the death by pestilence of all domesticated animals and a raging plague of boils (a disease which causes limbs to fall off; see Talmud Ketubot 20b).
Still, let’s assume that the first six were nonlethal. That still brings us to unlucky number seven, flaming hail. The Torah is explicit about this one (Ex. 9:19-25):
For upon every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought home, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die. He that feared the word of the Lord among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses. And he that regarded not the word of the Lord left his servants and his cattle in the field… And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and broke every tree of the field.
So Egyptians were dying; more importantly, their animals and slaves were dying for their masters’ disbelief. That is equally true of the Slaying of the Firstborn:
And all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sits upon his throne, even unto the firstborn of the maidservant that is behind the mill; and all the firstborn of beasts. (11:5)
And it came to pass, that at midnight the Lord smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh that sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the firstborn of cattle. (12:29)
Pharaoh, the cause of all this, does not die; all other firstborn of Egypt, including slaves and animals, do.
It may be convenient for us to think of the Slaying of the Firstborn as a powerfully destructive and indiscriminate weapon, but this plague is very personal, as we read in the Haggada: God Himself does the killing. It is not modern ethical warfare; it is ancient tribal warfare, in which Egypt is bad and Israel is good, and no other distinction is relevant. To contend that “Moses took every reasonable step to shield civilians from their leadership’s callousness and indifference to their plight” is laughable.
That is why we need the Seventh Day of Passover. The final chapter of the Exodus, the Splitting of the Sea, shows us an evolving ethic. This time, it is not Egyptian slaves or civilians who suffer, but Pharaoh’s war machine (Ex. 14:28): “And the waters returned, and covered the chariots, and the horsemen, and all the army of Pharaoh that came into the sea after them; there remained not so much as one of them.” As the Psalmist puts it (136:15), “And He hurled Pharaoh and his army into the Sea of Reeds, for His kindness is everlasting.”
In fact, in the Talmud (Megilla 10b), we find:
For the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked. And R. Johanan further said, What is the meaning of the verse, “And one came not near the other all the night” (Ex. 14:20)? The ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns, but the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “The work of my hands is being drowned in the sea, and shall you chant hymns?”
Once we can distinguish between the good Egyptians and the bad Egyptians, we can distinguish between the good and the bad within each Egyptian. Once we can identify the villains, we can have compassion for the enemy. That is the most provocative idea of Passover, and we can only embrace it once we are safely on the other side, on the Seventh Day.