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Posted on January 23, 2024 (5784) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

So G-d turned turned the people toward the way of the wilderness to the Reed Sea.[1]

Remarkably, a midrash[2] derives from this pasuk that “even the poorest person in Israel should not eat without leaning.” Now, beyond the similarity between the word for G-d “turned”/ vayasev and the word for leaning/haseiva, there is no connection that comes to mind between the side-trip to the Reed Sea and the correct posture for someone at a Pesach seder. What is this all about?

Earlier, when Moshe took word of the coming redemption to the Bnei Yisrael, he was singularly unsuccessful in eliciting any buy-in by the people. “They did not heed Moshe, because of shortness of breath and hard work.”[3] This explanation seems both inadequate and counterintuitive. Their misery ought to have made them even more receptive to a herald of freedom.

Giving people hope is a wonderful thing. A person whose suffering has a grim forecast for improvement craves encouragement. Tell him about people who’ve faced similar challenges and prevailed, and he’s all ears! He desperately wants to believe that there is still hope for him. Give him the opportunity to hope, and he’ll grab it.

But don’t overdo it. Tell a person who feels entirely defeated and diminished that not only is there hope for him, but he is destined to become a universally acknowledged celebrity, and he will assume that you are either crazy, or pulling his leg. Laid low by his misery, he cannot relate at all to promises of future greatness. He will not take the forecast seriously.

This is exactly what happened to the Bnei Yisrael. At the beginning of parshas Vaeira,[4] Hashem shared with Moshe the different expressions of redemption, including a triumphant entry into a Promised Land. This was far more than they could wrap their heads around. They therefore dismissed Moshe’s words. Accordingly, Moshe complained to Hashem, “The Bnei Yisrael have not listened to me. How, then, will Paroh?”[5] When I demand that he release all his slaves, he will cynically counter, “Really? Are they all on board with that? If they don’t heed your words, why should I? (Hashem accepted Moshe’s point. The very next pasuk sets forth the mission statement of Moshe and Aharon: taking the Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. There is no mention of anything beyond the alleviation of their misery. This was a message that they could listen to, and feel consoled by. Talk of entering Israel would wait till a future date.)

People can be so crushed by their circumstances, that they cannot relate to anything optimistic at all. They sink into complete despair. If ever there were circumstances that could spawn such despair, they were those of the Bnei Yisrael at the Yam Suf. The waters stood before them. They could hear the approach of horsemen and chariots behind them. To the sides – only desolate wilderness. It looked like the end.

From the depths of despair, Hashem redeemed them. They were taught thereby never to despair; that Divine compassion and intercession could be sought in seemingly hopeless circumstances. In fact, it was to teach them this lesson that Hashem “turned the people toward the way of the wilderness to the Reed Sea.” There, He would demonstrate that help could be forthcoming in the worst of situations.

Each year at the Seder we recall Hashem’s intercession in Egypt and at the Yam. Everyone leans at the table like elegant noblemen, even at times that we are downtrodden, persecuted. Even the poorest of the poor acts like a privileged member of the royal court. Because we all are. And we now realize that Hashem’s turning the people towards the Reed Sea directly generated our practice of leaning at the Seder.

Exactly like the midrash suggests.


  1. Shemos 13:18
  2. Shemos Rabbah 20:18
  3. Shemos 6:9
  4. Shemos 6:6-7
  5. Shemos 6:12