Elchanan Poupko

Shvi’i Shel Pesach: Forgetting the KGB

Prisoner of Zion Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky is escorted by US Ambassador Richard Burt after Sharansky crossed the border at Glienicker Bridge on Feb. 11, 1986 at the start of an East-West spy and prisoner exchange in Berlin. (AP Photo/Files)

Natan Sharansky has shown the world the power of faith and persistence. He sat countless days in solitary confinement, suffered in the communist KGB’s “punishment cell,” persecuted by the Soviet regime for his desire to live a free Jewish life in the land of Israel. Even someone with iron faith like Sharansky could probably never believe that within 24 hours he would be taken out of the KGB prison he was in, flown to Berlin, transfer across the border to West Germany where American diplomats would accompany him to Frankfurt where he would board an airplane to Israel, received in Ben Gurion airport by the entire Israeli government, and finish his evening in a mass prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But it happened. On February 11th, 1986, after 12 years of separation from his wife Avital, Sharansky was liberated. 

Yet even when free in Jerusalem, Sharansky would often hold his wife Avital’s hand tight. Long after his liberation, Sharansky would walk the streets of Jerusalem holding tight to his wife’s hand. In a later interview, Sharansky explained he did so because he still feared that somehow he would end up in a KGB prison cell. After so many years of being transferred from cell to cell, from prison to prison, and from camp to camp, Sharansky understandably had the instinctive fear that even though he was now safe in Jerusalem, he would somehow suddenly find himself back in a KGB prison cell. Sharansky’s fear might help explain why we observe the second days of Passover—Shvi’i Shel Pesach—as a Yom Tov and a special holiday.

While it is known that the 7th day of Passover is celebrated as the day of the miracle of the splitting of the sea, it is not clear why it is designated as a day of a celebration in and of itself. There are many miracles that make up the astounding story of the Exodus from Egypt, yet not every one of them is celebrated onto itself. There is the miracle of the Manna, the water, and so many other things that allowed an entire nation to exit Egypt and survive in the desert, not all of whom are celebrated. Why does the splitting of the red sea get a holiday onto itself? 

The answer to the uniqueness of the day can be found as the Torah introduces Moses’s song. Once the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, Moses and the Children of Israel said the famous Shirat Hayam—Song of the Sea, thanking God for the miracle; the Torah introduces this song with the words of Vayosha

“On that day, the Lord saved Israel from the hand[s] of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dying on the seashore. On that day, the Lord saved Israel from the hand[s] of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dying on the seashore.”

It is easy to understand why a significant part of this song was dedicated to God saving the Jews from the Egyptians; it is much harder to understand why a large part of the song was dedicated to the grotesque scene of the dead Egyptian soldiers washed up on the shore. In fact, why is there mention of such an ancillary aspect of the splitting of the sea? Addressing this difficulty, Rashi explains:

“and Israel saw the Egyptians dying on the seashore: For the sea spewed them out on its shore so that the Israelites would not say, “Just as we are coming up on this side [of the sea], so are they coming up on another side, far from us, and they will pursue us.”-[from Mechilta and Pesachim. 118b]”

Without freedom, there is no closure. The reason for seeing the Egyptians dead on the seashore was that the Israelites do not live the rest of their lives in fear. If the Israelites did not see the lifeless Egyptians washed up on the seashore, they would not be able to begin a new chapter. That is why the 7th day of Passover—Shvi’i Shel Pesach—is so meaningful; it is the day of the mental Exodus. 

While the first day of Passover celebrates our physical freedom from Egypt, the 7th day of Passover marks our psychological Exodus from Egypt. It is the day we no longer had to look over our shoulder. As eventually, Natan Sharansky no longer had to fear the KGB and cling to his wife’s arm while walking the streets of Jerusalem, so too, the children of Israel no longer had to fear Pharaoh and his troops. As we celebrate the 7th day and second Yom Tov of Passover this year, let us remind ourselves that to go free, we must not only be physically liberated but also emotionally liberated. We are reminded of the many steps we must take to be fully free. Chag Same’ach! 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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