Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Perhaps the greatest disappointment in our annual Pesach celebration is that we lack the central observance of the holiday, namely the Korban Pesach, Paschal Lamb.  It's been almost two millennia that we have muddled on without performing this core precept.  Nowadays, I don't believe that most of us even notice its absence, because we've gotten so used to Passover without it.  However, that's a shame, because it is such an important mitzvah.  Usually we don't know the relative importance of positive commandments, but in the case of the Paschal Lamb we do.  That's because it's one of only two positive commandments that carries a punishment for noncompliance.  The other is Brit Milah or circumcision and the consequence for both is the severe and mysterious punishment called Karet, or being cut off from the Jewish nation.  So, since this practice is extremely important and we're unfortunately unable to perform it, I believe that it behooves us to try to understand it and its significant place in this festival.

            To better understand this mitzvah, I believe, that we must solve a number of mysteries about it.  Throughout the long running dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh, the fundamental request of Moshe is that the Jews want to leave Egypt for three days to serve God in the wilderness.  It's this request that Pharaoh consistently denies.   At one point Pharaoh suggests that the Jews bring their offering to God within the borders of Egypt and Moshe demurs, saying:  It is improper to do that, for we will sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to our God. Will we sacrifice the deity of the Egyptians before their eyes, and they will not stone us? (Exodus 8:22-23).  Elsewhere, Moshe doesn't even want to pray to God in Egypt when he entreats God to stop the plague of hail (What, the hail!).  Rashi, based on the Midrash explains that it's not appropriate to pray within the Egyptian territory which is filled with statues and temples to idolatry (9:29).   So, how come the Paschal Lamb is sacrificed within boundaries of Egypt?  Why didn't they wait until reaching the desert?  It seems that by the end of the plagues and the acceptance of God's mitzvoth the allure of Egypt's idolatry no longer held sway over the Jews, and the icons were broken.

            Also, it seems that this sacrifice itself was revolutionary.  Until this time all sacrifices were of the olah variety, which is totally burnt.  This was the first offering of the type called shelamim, in which the animal is almost completely consumed by the party offering it.  Not only is this the first of its type in the Bible, it may have been the first in all human history.  According to the Bible Encyclopedia (article on korban), in neither Egypt nor Mesopotamia do we find any instance of a person eating their own sacrifice.  This must have struck both the Jews and the Egyptians as a curiosity.

            And, finally the greatest of the unusual aspects of this offering, why was its blood splashed on the door posts and lintels of the Jewish homes.  I know that we say in the verse that this was so that God would pass over the houses of the Jews.  That can't be true.  The Haggadah emphasizes that it was God who actually visited Egypt on that fateful night.  God can't possibly need visible evidence of who lives where.  I know the post office often delivers my neighbor's mail to my mailbox (They get much better mail than I do.), but I do expect better service from God, especially when in this case the delivery is so hazardous.  So, this is the greatest mystery of all, why smear blood all over the doorway?

            Actually, the Talmud answered this question.  What is usually done with the blood of sacrifices?  The blood is sprinkled on the altar in the Holy Temple.  However, in Egypt there was no altar; there was no temple.  The solution is found in tractate Pesachim it says: In Egypt there were three altars the lintel and the two doorposts (96a).  The home becomes the altar.  This should come as no surprise to those who read the verses instructing us to bring the Paschal Lamb with sensitivity.  It says:  On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household. But if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his neighbor who is nearest to his house shall take one according to the number of people, And they shall take of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it (Exodus 12:3-7).   And later it writes:  It must be eaten in one house; you shall not take any of the meat out of the house (verse 46).  I actually left out six more mentions of the word house in that chapter.  So, it's clear that the emphasis is on the house, the household, the home.

            How do we understand the three altars?  One doorpost represents the parents who preserve and transmit the traditions of our people to a new generation.  The other doorpost signifies the children who carry our practices into the future.  Upon this stable foundation of confidence that we have safeguarded our past and optimism that it will be brought into the future, we place the lintel which symbolizes our home.  Our home is the present which is the intersection and the interface between the Jewish past and future, parent and child.

            At the Seder, the focus is on the home and the crucial symbol of that reality is the Paschal Lamb.  The Haggadah, when describing the importance of the lamb, quotes this verse: It is a Passover-offering to the Lord, because He passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians with a plague, and He saved our houses. And the people bowed and prostrated themselves (verse 27).  Even in the absence of the physical lamb, may we fulfill its message.  Chag Sameach!                                 

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