There is something anticlimactic about the morning after Leil HaSeder. After weeks of combatting crumbs with Fantastik, battling the crowds in shoe stores, restocking our oil and potato starch supplies ad infinitum, and creating an indelible footpath between the fleishig counter and the stove, we’ve finally made it.

Seder night is a glorious affair where each family member assumes his characteristic role: the questioner, the devar-Torah teller, the niggun singer, and the hungry-for-Shulchan-Oreich kvetcher. Weeks of arduous preparation are vindicated.

And then we awaken the morning after, hazy with exhaustion, and try to puzzle together the focus and meaning in the remaining days of Pesach. There’s an almost disappointing sense that with the Seder nights’ conclusion, we’ve crested the spiritual summit of this extraordinary time, with no place left to grow.

In truth, the summit is yet to come. Klal Yisrael’s history is replete with miracles, but Kri’as Yam Suf inhabits a unique position in the annals of our nation. There, we merited an exquisite display of Divine justice; each Jew witnessed his Egyptian tormentor’s demise and the precisely calibrated punishment befitting his oppressor’s crimes. This, in addition to the wholly inconceivable phenomenon of a sea splitting to reveal dry land, water patiently standing sentry until a nation of 1.2 million passes through. It’s no wonder Az Yashir is a fixture in our daily liturgy, a perpetual ode of gratitude.

When the Waters Fled

In referencing Kri’as Yam Suf, Tehillim (114:3) employs a curious phrase: “Hayam ra’ah vayanos — the sea saw and fled.” What did it see? Why did this sight cause the sea to flee — an expression related to fear — and not simply to split? Were Klal Yisrael spiritually awe-inspiring people whose merits caused the sea to recoil in terror? Clearly not as they are described by Chazal.

When the Yalkut Shimoni (334) recounts Klal Yisrael crossing the Yam Suf, it writes that none other than the satan himself appeared, demanding they be drowned: “Yisrael served idols in Mitzrayim, and yet You perform miracles on their behalf!” he protests.

Indeed, a lively discussion (ibid., 333) precedes the satan’s proclamation, an attempt at finding the appropriate merit for splitting the sea. “Shimon Ish Katron omer: B’zechus atzmos Yosef Ani korei’a lahem es hayam, shene’emar, ‘Vayanos hachutzah,’ v’omer, ‘Hayam ra’ah vayanos.’ ” Shimon Ish Katron attributes Klal Yisrael’s safe passage through the sea to the virtues of Yosef Hatzaddik, whose bones they ferried out of Mitzrayim and through the Yam Suf. His “Vayanos hachutzah,” an expression of frantic escape, is the spiritual cognate to the Yam Suf’s terrified flight, “Hayam ra’ah vayanos.” Only Yosef Hatzaddik causes the sea to flee in fear.

In Breach of Nature

Nature is a consistent fixture in life. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west; the seasons segue from spring to summer, fall to winter; water flows to the lowest natural point. Human nature shares this consistency. We shed tears when in pain, startle when threatened, and yearn for love. In a fluctuating world, the rhythm of nature and the human condition are predictable constants. Except when they’re not.

Yosef Hatzaddik endured a most impossible and unnatural experience. Maseches Yoma (35) describes Eishes Potifar’s unrelenting attempts to seduce him: She appealed to him with suggestive language and she changed her clothing multiple times a day. She threatened to incarcerate him and to blind him. Finally, on a preplanned morning alone with Yosef, she grabbed him by his clothing, prevailing upon him again. Yosef had every reason to capitulate. He was 17 years old, alone in a foreign land, presumed dead by his father, and sold to idolaters by his brothers. Chazal note that his ordeal was a microcosm of all challenges in arayos ever to plague mankind.

The human condition dictated that Yosef fail. The laws of nature ordained that he succumb. And yet Yosef did not submit.

Sheim MiShmuel (Vayeishev) explains that Yosef’s refusal to yield was a completely unnatural act. “Vayaazov bigdo b’yadah, vayanos vayatza hachutzah — he left his garment in her hand and he fled and went outside.” Disregarding his own natural instincts and emotions, Yosef fled from sin as from fire. And in an act of Divine reciprocity, when Yosef contravened his own nature, the Yam Suf was compelled to abrogate its nature as well. Hayam raah vayanos — the sea saw and it fled.

Defining Difficulty

We’re all familiar with the Gemara stating that it’s as difficult to pair people in marriage as it was to split the sea. But is it fathomable that anything is difficult for Hashem?

Rav Shlomo Wolbe explains, “Kashim heim hatevaim.” Kasheh, difficulty, is a function of navigating one’s teva. For Hashem, kasheh is not an expression of actual adversity, but rather a synonym for teva. But for humankind, any potential breach of one’s nature will inevitably engender hardship. We crave our natural state of being, preferring the security of inertia to the complex undertaking of serious internal change.

So disparate are the genders that to achieve harmonious unity, they must actually rise above the contradictions in their respective natures. Hence, just like the splitting of the sea, pairing male and female demands concessions from teva.

Teva is my inborn nature, as much a part of me as my arms and legs. It asserts itself in my behavior, speech, and thought. My inborn nature inspires my life’s most successful moments, but it’s also to blame for my most epic failures. Spiritual maturity demands that I rise above the negative aspects of my teva, those facets of my nature that drag me down. But it’s so hard! Teva grips me firmly, and relentlessly demands I do its bidding. Rising above my nature is almost a supernatural proposition, demanding fortitude and focus, investment and emotional outlay.

Can We Split the Sea?

In illustrating the scheming tactics of the yetzer hara, Mesilas Yesharim indicates one of its most effective maneuvers: The yetzer chronically burdens me with distractions, allowing me no reprieve to consider the path I traverse. When life is so busy that I can barely catch my breath, spiritual self-reflection is the casualty. And the question, “Am I living life by design, or by the default mode of my personality and nature?” is one I’m too distracted to ask.

The yetzer hara’s strategy recalls Pharaoh’s infamous decision to increase the workload of the Jewish slaves, lest they have a moment for introspection. Indeed, according to the Rambam, Pharaoh is the physical embodiment of the yetzer hara, sharing his spiritual essence with none other than the satan. Thus, the long-awaited redemption from Mitzrayim had two facets: freedom from physical slavery, and more significantly, liberation from the spiritually inhibiting vise of the yetzer hara.

On Erev Pesach, when we burned the chometz, we appealed to Hashem: “k’sheim shebiarnu es hachometz mibateinu… kach tevaer hayetzer hara mikirbeinu…” Just as we burned the chometz within in our home, so may You incinerate the yetzer hara from within us. The yetzer I burned with the chometz is the same yetzer that, masquerading as Pharaoh, prevented Klal Yisrael from self-reflection. He is the same yetzer that drowns me in minutiae of life, hindering effective self-analysis. And he’s the same yetzer that asserts I must blindly heed the dictates of my inborn teva, no matter how damaging the outcome.

The sheer magnitude of this challenge is as daunting as splitting the sea. Crushed under the albatross of a decades-old way of being, I doubt I can prevail. But then I remember Yosef Hatzaddik.

What gave him the ability to bypass his natural instincts and resist Eishes Potifar? Sheim MiShmuel explains that Yosef was lifted through zechus avos. Although Avraham Avinu’s physical reality precluded him from having children, “Hashem lifted Avraham beyond his biological reality.” With this, Hashem created a spiritual precedent and assured all future descendants of Avraham Avinu that they too would never be bound by their teva; they’d maintain an ability to supersede the boundaries of their respective natures. This was the promise that underlay Yosef’s formidable act. And it’s the legacy that empowers us today.

My teva is not a life sentence. I can rise above my knee-jerk reflex for losing my temper. I can elevate myself past my inborn pessimism. I can lift myself past my natural propensity for demeaning others, past the indolence, recklessness, cynicism, apathy, or fretfulness that I’ve been hardwired with since childhood. And when I exhibit a readiness to breach my own natural barriers, Hashem reciprocates with a boost of Divine intervention, me’al hateva.

This Pesach, with the image of Yosef Hatzaddik propelling me, I can climb beyond the restrictions of my teva — and split the sea.

Originally featured in Family First, Issue 586. Mrs. Elana Moskowitz has been teaching in seminaries for nearly 20 years.