There is a great difference in the perception of a momentous historic event, between the generation that actually experienced it, was witness to and perhaps even participated in it, and later generations who know of the event through tradition and history. The facts regarding events can be transmitted from one generation to the next, even for thousands of years, but the emotional quality, the pervading actual mood and atmosphere present at the time never survives the passage of time and distance from the event itself.
Perhaps nowhere is this truism more strikingly evident than in the drama of the salvation of the Jewish people at the shores of Yam Suf. At the moment of Divine deliverance, Moshe and Miriam and the people of Israel burst into exalted song, registering their relief and triumph over the destruction of their hated oppressors.
This song of triumph is so powerful that it forms part of the daily prayer service of Israel for millennia. But, though the words have survived and been sanctified by all generations of Jews from Moshe till the present, the original fervor, intensity and aura of that moment is no longer present with us.
The Pesach Hagadah bids us to relive the Exodus from Egypt as though we actually were present then and experienced it. But it is beyond the ability of later generations do so fully and completely. We can recall and relive the event intellectually and positively in an historic vein but the emotional grandeur of the moment has evaporated over time.
We are witness as to how the events of only a century ago – the two great World Wars, the Holocaust, the birth of the State of Israel, etc. – have begun to fade away from the knowledge, memory and recall of millions of Jews today, a scant few generations after these cataclysmic events took place. In this case, it is not only the emotion that has been lost but even the actual facts and their significance – social, religious and national – are in danger of disappearing from the conscious thoughts and behavior of many Jews.
In light of this, it is truly phenomenal that the deliverance of Israel at Yam Suf is so distinctly marked and remembered, treasured and revered in the Jewish memory bank. The reason for this exceptional survival of historic memory is that it was made part of Jewish religious ritual, incorporated in the Torah itself, and commemorated on a special Shabbat named for the event. It thus did not have to rely on historic truth and memory alone to preserve it for posterity.
Religious ritual remains the surest way of preserving historical memory, far stronger than May Day parades and twenty-one gun salutes and salvos. Ritual alone may be unable to capture the emotion and atmosphere of the actual event but it is able to communicate the essential facts and import of the event to those who never witnessed or experienced it. The song of Moshe, Miriam and Israel still reverberates in the synagogues of the Jewish people and more importantly in their minds and hearts as well.
Rabbi Berel Wein