Standing at the Sea

There’s a great song that we have incorporated into some of our Friday Night Live services. It goes “Standing at the Sea, Mi Chamocha, freedom is on the way!” Then the kids yell out FREEDOM! We celebrate the fact that Moses and Miriam led our ancestors in song after the Sea of Reeds opened for them. This is a part of our daily liturgy, and the words from Mi Chamocha, “Who is like you,” are chanted in both the morning and evening services. At the same time, there is no ritual connected to commemorating Israel crossing the sea. There are rituals involving the ten plagues, the unleavened bread, even holding up the Paschal lamb to commemorate G-d passing over our homes, yet there is nothing in the Ashkenazi service to commemorate the splitting of the sea.

Sephardim from Mediterranean countries do a special commemoration of the splitting of the sea. On the end of the eighth night, the synagogue is opened at one minute after midnight. The Torah is taken from the ark and the Song of Songs is read while congregants dance in the aisles. Following the Torah reading, the Mimouna festivities begin. Mimouna means “wealth” or “good fortune” in Arabic, and the celebration honors Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a major authority of Sephardi Jews whose father’s Yahrzeit is the last day of Passover.

The Mimouna celebration varies depending on the customs and traditions of the local Sephardi community. There are many Sephardi communities who act out the crossing of the Sea of Reeds.  People who lived inland would go to rivers, wells, springs, or swimming holes to re-enact the miraculous journey. They would pour water over their hands and feet and even on the threshold of their homes. Once this ritual was done, they would then go to an outdoor setting to set up tents and picnics complete with music, laughter, singing and dancing. Every year the Tucson Jewish community hosts a major Mimouna celebration with bellydancers and Mediterranean food.

The Turkish Jews also have a special ritual as part of their Mimouna celebration that connects to the splitting of the sea. They throw coins and candy to their children, which symbolizes the wealth and abundance of food that our ancestors brought with them when they left Egypt. Some also throw grass, symbolizing the crossing of the Sea of Reeds as well as the hope that this coming year will be one of growth. There are stories I’ve read of children who could not wait until the men returned home from services, treasuring the opportunity to collect the coins and the candy.

Two aspects of this Sephardi ritual are significant to me. First, it gives the children something to look forward to at the end of the holiday. For many, the last two days of Passover can be anti-climactic, as the first two have the majesty of the Seder but the last two don’t have any direct ritual associated with them-and by now we can’t wait to eat bread. Mimouna provides a direct ritual for which we can revel in our joy of making it through one more Passover, another holiday at which we celebrate the liberation of our people. Secondly, this ritual directly ties into the Song at the Sea which we read today. It makes the concept of our ancestors being saved at a moment they faced destruction very real and tangible for children.  Just as we teach our children at the Seder table about the unique nature of Passover through the asking of the Four Questions, and that even as we rejoice we diminish our happiness on account of the Egyptians who perished during the plagues, so too should we take an opportunity to directly demonstrate for them the celebration of our people’s redemption from Egypt.

The more often we crystallize a historical event, bringing it out of the book and into people’s lived experiences, the more success we will have in transmitting the impact of that event to future generations. It is wonderful to hear Cantor Black beautifully chant the crossing of the sea or to sing (as done in some congregations) Yom L’Yabashah, the piyyut by Yehudah HaLevi, in which he writes that the redemption from Egypt should bring about future redemption for our people. At the same time, if we don’t actively show connection between the event and our lives, we lose the linkage as to why this matters to us. Some synagogues reenact the biblical events as part of their services; others draw parallels between them and current events. What is most important is to take the text out of the page and into our hearts, bringing the text to life, so that we will truly feel that we are standing at the sea on the way towards redemption. That is the potential of a song like “Standing at the Sea,” teaching our children to celebrate our freedoms and to connect with a time when our people were not free. Let us strive to create every opportunity for “living Judaism,” to make our texts and traditions relatable to the next generation. Hag Sameach.

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