Rabbi David Walk
With chapter twelve of the book of Exodus a major change takes place in our familiar Torah text. We've been avidly following story after story, and now we are confronted with our first major legal material. We have a relatively detailed description of how to offer the Paschal Lamb. These verses could be boring explaining how we slaughter, sacrifice, roast and even eat the lamb, but if we read them with the proper sensitivity we see an unfolding drama which parallels the story's events. I think that I can explain how to view the rising tension developing in this passage by comparing it to the climatic moment in the ground breaking musical Les Miserables. In the multi-part anthem One Day More, many disparate forces await the morrow when moral, romantic and historic clarity will be achieved (If you're not familiar with it, go ahead, Google it.). Private individuals, star crossed lovers, government agents, criminal elements, and, of course, the idealistic rebels are portrayed in a frantic state of anticipation. In our tale, we have the protagonists Moshe and Pharaoh, but we also have the regular Egyptian trying to decide how to treat this former slave population, and, of course, the Children of Israel. These Jews who have been slaves for generations must finally make an independent choice: remain passive slaves or bravely follow God's instructions to publicly sacrifice the god of their masters. The evening of the fifteenth of Nissan finds the Jews cowering in their hovels behind the doorposts smeared bright red with the blood of the lambs. They wait, just like Victor Hugo's characters for one more dawn, one more day, one day more. Will the promise that 'everyman will be a king' be fulfilled? They have no choice but to wait because 'Tomorrow is the judgment day. Tomorrow we'll discover what our God in heaven has in store!' The tension is beyond endurance. Where do the Jews find the strength to hold on?
I believe that the power to keep going comes from one word. That word is the Hebrew root shamar or guard. This word appears seven times in these critical verses of chapter twelve. It first is seen in verse six: Take special care (mishmeret) of this chosen animal until the evening of the fourteenth day of this first month. It then shows up twice in verse seventeen: And you shall watch over the unleavened cakes, for on this very day I have taken your legions out of the land of Egypt, and you shall observe this day throughout your generations, as an everlasting statute. It next appears in verses twenty-four and twenty-five: And you shall keep this matter (of the door posts) as a statute for you and for your children forever. And it shall come to pass when you enter the land that the Lord will give you, as He spoke, that you shall observe this service. Finally, we see a form of this verb twice in verse forty-two: It is a night of watching for the Lord, to take them out of the land of Egypt; this night is the Lord's, guarding all the children of Israel throughout their generations.
In the first instance of this term the Jews of Egypt are instructed to show extreme care in the taking of the animal for this first national offering. Most rabbis see this as a command to choose an animal without blemish, but we can see it as the moral strength to defy their masters. Next our word explains the concern to keep all chametz from our homes and grounds for the duration of Pesach. In the third case we are guarding the doorways to our premises, giving us a sense of security in home and hearth. At last, we are informed that this night holds a unique power to provide safety of psyche and body. Our shamar root is doubled in three of these four cases because watching for chametz, guarding our doors and the special nature of the night are relevant forever. However, the requirement to take the lamb four days early and display it publicly was only true in the Passover of Egypt, hence there's only one mention of guarding the lamb.
So, our modern annual observance of Pesach contains three guardings. We must carefully watch the matzah in its preparation and its consumption, and we must diligently watch over our homes. The third item which is protected is the night itself. We believe that the first two are safeguarded by us, while the evening is secured by God. We must provide diligence in our behavior and mitzvah performance, represented by the matzah. We must also provide for our families a warm and secure environment in which Torah ideas and ideals can incubate and grow. That endeavor is symbolized by the mezuzah on our doors. When we do our part in those two areas of actions and spirit, we believe that God reciprocates by ensuring a safe haven in time.
The nature of this guarded time zone is itself an argument. The more popular midrashic approach to explain this phenomenon is that this night had been set aside since the creation of the world to be the uniquely designated time for redemption. This follows the opinion of Rebbe Yehoshua in the Talmud that this will also be the time for the future, complete redemption. However, there are others who maintain that the safeguarding of the night of the Seder refers to the physical safety which the Jews enjoy this night. Some say that this is the source of our custom to open the door in the middle of our Seder.
Now we can understand how the Jews survived the tension of that night and that experience. Guard and hold on tight to the mitzvah performance and the spiritual integrity of your family. Then God will provide you with the necessary window of security to survive. We must see our observance of Jewish practice and our embrace of our family values as key ingredients to surviving the drama of Jewish history. So, that when we hold on tight, we can live to see the world beyond the barricades.
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