Psalm 114 And Returning Home For Passover – OpEd


Why is Psalm 114 included in the Haggadah that is read during the Passover home service that ends with the declaration “Next Year In Jerusalem”? Professor Marc Zvi Brettler in an insightful article in the Times of Israel April 4, 2023 shows how Psalm 114, in only eight verses, encouraged exiled Jews to return to their homeland from Babylonia.

This brief psalm is about the exodus from Egypt, and is comprised of eight verses split evenly between four sections: 114:1When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, 114:2 Judah became His holy one, Israel, His dominion. Then 114:3 The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward, 114:4 mountains skipped like rams, hills like sheep.

And 114:5 What alarmed you, O sea, that you fled, Jordan, that you ran backward 114:6 mountains, that you skipped like rams, hills, like sheep, So 114:7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, 114:8 who turned the rock into a pool of water, the flinty rock into a fountain.

The structure of the poem is very simple: Each unit is made of two verses—none longer, and none shorter. The four central verses (vv. 3–6) describing the natural world are surrounded by two verses concerning Israel (1–2) and two concerning God (7–8), elegantly bringing together God, the natural world that He controls, and His people, Israel.

When did Israel become God’s nation? Genesis strongly suggests that Abraham was the first Israelite, and with him, or with the branching out of the tribes through the children of Jacob, Israel was formed. Indeed, one of the names of Jacob is Israel, and his twelve sons become the twelve tribes in Exodus, marking the genealogical beginning of Israel.

The book of Exodus says Israel was formed through its covenant with God at Mount Sinai (Horeb), as we read: Exodus 19:5-16 “Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

Our psalm, however, offers a third possibility that Israel was formed as a nation from the Exodus from Egypt to the entrance into Israel across the Jordan River.

In Psalm 114, Israel simply goes out of Egypt leaving without any explicit divine help. Like the Biblical book of Esther, God is present in this psalm implicitly from the beginning, but is only mentioned explicitly in the psalm’s final section, in verse 7.

Verse 3b suggests that the Jordan River follows the example of the Reed Sea and flows backwards during the Exodus. Moreover, by adding in the Jordan River fleeing, it implies a very different understanding of the Torah narrative. The miracles here are not just about Israel escaping from Egypt, but about the natural world reacting to God’s actions on earth. 

Verse 4, says that during the exodus the hills and mountains danced. In Exodus 17:1-7, Moses strikes a rock (the same word used in Psalm 114) and water pours forth. In Numbers 20:1-13 when Moses strikes a rock.

In Psalm 114, God did not fashion Israel through Abraham descendants alone, or even when making an ongoing covenant at Sinai, but during the whole Exodus. Moses did not strike a rock causing water to issue forth, but God turned flint into water. God did not bring Israel out of Egypt, but met them when they had the courage to leave Egypt, and that is when Israel became his people.

What is the point of Psalm 114? The early exilic prophet Isaiah promised the Judeans in exile an effortless, miraculous return: Isaiah 40:4 “Let every valley be raised, every hill and mount made low. Let the rugged ground become level, and the ridges become a plain.” 

But the post-exile Biblical books of Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and Ezra-Nehemiah show that the period of the return was difficult. Relatively few Jews returned from their homes in Babylonia, and those who did come back were challenged by those Jews who had not been exiled.

The goal of the psalm is to convince the post-exilic Jewish community that their future in Israel holds great promise. Once God appears, even mountains and the sea cannot withstand Him. The implied message is that the return from Babylon, which transpired over several generations will also be as great as the exodus of long ago.

The fact that the psalm begins with Israel “leaving” Egypt may be pushing those in exile to take their own initiative and to leave Babylon for the Land of Israel. If only Israel/Judah will take the initiative, everything else will follow; as indeed it did.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *