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The Korban Pesach: Paschal Lamb

Rav Michael Hattin




As the Plagues agonizingly draw to a close, and the winds of freedom begin to blow, Pharaoh remains entrenched.  Hostage to an adamancy of his own making, he is unwilling to consider the sage counsel of his chastened advisors to release the Hebrews, even as disaster stares him squarely in the face.  "God said to Moshe: I shall bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt and then he shall send the people forth, he shall surely drive you out completely." 


As their last tense standoff is about to conclude, Moshe announces to Pharaoh and to his assembled court the most frightening plague of all: "Thus says God: at the stroke of midnight, I will go out in the midst of Egypt.  All of the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the first born of the slave girl who grinds at the millstone, as well as all of the first born animals.  There shall be a great outcry in the land of Egypt, the likes of which there has never been, nor shall there ever be again.  As for Bnei Yisrael, a dog shall not whet its tongue neither against man nor against animal, that you may know the distinction that I shall draw between Egypt and Israel.  All of your advisors assembled here shall come to me and bow down saying: 'leave with all of your people!' and then we shall go.  And Moshe left Pharaoh's presence in fury."



The Passivity of the Hebrews


Over the course of many months, nine plagues have already been visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians. The invisible God of the Hebrews has patently demonstrated His superiority over the false gods of Egypt, His mastery of the forces of nature, and His providence over the affairs of human beings.  The Egyptians have borne the brunt of the plagues in a pathetic mixture of terror and wonder, as Pharaoh has impassively resisted their unavoidable message.   As for Bnei Yisrael, they have for the most part witnessed them as detached observers, absorbing their pertinent message without being subject to their painful effects. 


It is notable indeed that for a people about to experience the refreshing air of national freedom, Bnei Yisrael remain completely passive.  In fact, throughout the period of the plagues we have heard nothing of Bnei Yisrael's preparations and plans for the Exodus.  For an oppressed people chafing under cruel bondage and anticipating the aurora of liberation, they have been unusually inert.  Have there been no clandestine meetings of the revolutionary council to discuss the dawning emancipation and to map out the setup of a provisional government?  Why have we not heard of an aspiring cadre of firebrands gathering around the 'prophet' and stirring up the people to heightened acts of protest and to sabotage of the brick works?   Where are the communiques and leaflets that are supposed to be periodically issued, to buoy the people's spirits and to fan the flames of the insurrection?  Indeed, it appears that the Exodus from Egypt is the only example in recorded history of a revolt of slaves in which their leader demands and achieves deliverance, but where the slaves who long to be free do not themselves participate in the revolt! 


The significance of this 'oversight' is abundantly clear: the Torah does not make mention of Bnei Yisrael's active participation in winning hard-earned emancipation, because it did not take place.  There was no popular movement to call for freedom and no band of inspired activists to oppose Pharaoh's decrees.  When Moshe appeared to announce God's redemption, "the people believed" but did nothing to realize the dream, for nothing more was asked of them.  Standing back in awe and trepidation, they statically and stoically beheld as God's mighty acts shook and toppled the oppressive regime of the Pharaoh.  The participation of Bnei Yisrael is conspicuously absent from the process of the Redemption because the Torah is emphasizing in no uncertain terms that Divine involvement alone was responsible for the Exodus from Egypt. To paraphrase the language of the Haggada, "if God had not taken out our ancestors from Egypt, surely we and our children and our grandchildren would still be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt!" The Exodus therefore becomes a paradigmatic metahistorical event that declares for all time that the world has an omnipotent God, transcendent and yet always present, absolutely surpassing the feeble limitations of pagan personification but never too distant from the aching heart of the serf.



The Taking of the Lamb


In fact, however, a careful reading of the text reveals that as the plague of the first born draws near, God issues a commandment whose fulfillment by the people constitutes their first tentative step away from enslavement (in all of its insidious forms) and towards redemption.  "God spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of months, the first month of the year.  Speak to Bnei Yisrael and tell them that on the tenth of this month each household is to take a lamb.  If the household is too small to consume a lamb then let it join with a neighbor to together take a lamb...Guard the lamb until the fourteenth day of this month at which time the entire congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at evening.  They shall take of its blood and mark the doorposts and lintel of the homes in which they consume it.  They shall eat its flesh on that night, roasted and with matzot, and with bitter herbs shall they eat it...This is how you shall eat it: with girded loins, with your shoes on your feet and with your staff in your hands.  Eat it in haste, it is a Pesach offering to God.  I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall smite every first born in the land of Egypt, human as well as animal, and I shall execute stern judgements against the gods of Egypt.  The blood serve as a sign upon the houses in which you dwell, and I shall see the blood and pass over you, and the destructive plague shall not be upon you as I smite the land of Egypt..."


The paschal sacrifice, consisting of a lamb roasted whole and eaten in a state of preparation and haste, is the central element in the Meal of Redemption.  As the surrounding night is punctuated by screams of dread and muffled cries of anguish, Bnei Yisrael calmly consume their repast. The lamb is eaten with the unleavened cakes of matza, symbolic of haste, and the bitter herbs, recalling the oppression about to be left behind. In an act both peculiar as well as grotesque, their doorways are marked with the blood of the lamb, and within the safety of their sealed homes they wait for the night of terror to pass.  Significantly, the badge of this blood is here described as the mechanism for warding off the dreaded visitation of the Destroyer.


What is the significance of the paschal lamb?  Why is the Dawn of Redemption ushered in by the ceremony of its slaughter and consumption?  What could be the meaning of the ritually smeared blood that is enjoined to designate the houses of the Hebrews?  An investigation of the traditional sources yields a number of basic approaches, each of which contributes an additional dimension to understanding this first commandment given to the people of Israel to perform.



The Polemic against Idolatry


"Draw and take lambs" this is what is meant by the verse: 'those that serve idols shall be ashamed.'  When God told Moshe to command the people to sacrifice the paschal lamb, Moshe was alarmed.  'Master of the Universe!  How shall I do this thing?  Do You not know that the lamb is one of the gods of Egypt? (Recall that Pharaoh had granted permission to sacrifice in Egypt after the plague of wild beasts, but Moshe refused to accept the offer, fearful that the Egyptian masses would not take well to the sacrifice of one of their deities: 'shall we then sacrifice the abomination of Egypt before their eyes?  They will stone us!' -  Shemot 8:22).  Said God to him: 'by your life, I swear that Bnei Yisrael shall not leave this land until they first slaughter the god of Egypt before their eyes, to indicate to them that their gods are powerless.'  And so it was, for that very night God smote the first born of Egypt and Bnei Yisrael slaughtered and consumed the lamb.  The Egyptians saw their first born dead and their god slaughtered and could do nothing, as the verse states: 'Bnei Yisrael left Egypt on the morrowand Egypt was burying their first born which God had smote, and against their gods He executed judgements' (BeMidbar 33:3-4)" - Shemot Rabba 16:3.


According to this Midrash, the commandment to take and slaughter the paschal lamb is understood as the final demonstration of God's omnipotence.  Bowed and broken by the plagues, unable to withstand any more the irresistible message of God's dominance, Egypt must bear one final indignity: the wholesale slaughter and consumption of one of their popular deities by their formerly subservient nemeses.  Its blood casually and conspicuously draping their doorways, Bnei Yisrael eat the lamb in calm conviction, for no cruel taskmasters shall disturb their peace this night.  What Moshe had earlier regarded as a dangerous act of provocation, is here commanded by God as a last, decisive indication that He alone is Master of the fate of men, and that there are no other gods to oppose His will. 


Of course, in concurrence with this reading, one can only assume that the blood was smeared on the outside doorframe, plain for all to see.  Such is the view expressed by Rabbi Yitzchak in the Mekhilta, the Midrash Halakha on the Book of Shemot (Parashat Bo, Chapter 6): "Rabbi Yitzchak said: the blood was smeared only on the outside, so that the Egyptians might see and their stomachs churn."  Additionally, it seems reasonable that there is a good measure of defiance in the act, as Bnei Yisrael thumb their noses at their former masters by fearlessly ridiculing their gods.  Though the placing of the blood effectively singles out their homes for easy identification, Bnei Yisrael are unafraid of retribution, for God Himself has extended His protective canopy over them.  "And I shall see the blood and pass over you" is therefore not meant to imply a limitation on God's ability to otherwise identify the homes of the Hebrews (this being a theological impossibility), but is rather a statement in no uncertain terms that to deserve an act of redemption, one must perform an act of conviction.



The Merit of Acts


A very different perspective is provided by a Midrash preserved in the Mekhilta, Parashat Bo Chapter 5: "You shall guard the lamb until the fourteenth day of this month" Why did the Torah ordain the taking of the lamb four days before its slaughter?  Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh explained: '...the time had arrived for God to fulfill His oath to Avraham to redeem his children, but they had no mitzvot to perform in order to merit redemption.  Therefore God gave them the twin mitzvot of the blood of the paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision in order that they might merit redemption...Thus, they were commanded to separate the lamb four days beforehand to indicate that one can receive reward only for acts.' 


In this formulation, the gods of Egypt are not at all of interest.  The issue is merits, and merits are a function of acts.  Belief in redemption is seemingly insufficient without acts of trust, and for Rabbi Matya acts of trust are the mitzvot.  The state of passivity of Bnei Yisrael during the course of the plagues now had to be transcended by deeds, and the two deeds decreed by God were circumcision and the paschal lamb. 


Circumcision is a painful experience, and its adherents must be ready to suffer that pain in order to testify to their association with each other as well as with a common destiny.  On the most fundamental level, circumcision is an identifying mark that links together individuals to form a community or a nation.  The paschal lamb is also about identifying marks, for its blood marks the homes of God's followers. Eaten in units of family and clan, this sacrifice more than any other speaks of larger, national affiliations.  For Rabbi Matya, it is precisely these two mitzvot that usher in the Exodus, for they both speak of assuming a national identity that is predicated on recognition of the Supreme God and adherence to His teaching.   They are most appropriately the 'merits' by which Bnei Yisrael secure their redemption. It is important to point out that the text makes the celebration of the paschal sacrifice contingent on being circumcised, for both are expressions of the same religious national themes (see Shemot 12:43 44).


Significantly, these are also the only two positive commandments in the Torah that carry the penalty of 'Karet,' or spiritual excision from the community of Israel, for non-fulfillment.  One who willfully abrogates either of these rites has rejected any connection to the destiny of the People of Israel, and is therefore spiritually expelled from their midst.



Overcoming Idolatry


Finally, we turn our attention to the most striking of the sources, also a Midrash from the Mekhilta (Parashat Bo, Chapter 5): "Moshe said to the people: 'draw yourselves away from idolatry and take instead the lamb commanded by God.'  Said Rabbi Yehuda ben Betayra: "the verse states that the people did not hearken to Moshe (when he announced the impending redemption see Shemot 6:9) because they were 'short of breath and burdened with hard labor!'  Is it possible that a person could be informed of glad tidings and not rejoice?  If a person were told of the birth of their child would they not rejoice? If a slave was informed that their master was going to free them, would they not rejoice?  Why then did the people ignore Moshe's encouraging words?  Rather, it was difficult for them to part with idolatry!"


Here, the Midrash informs us, the paschal sacrifice constitutes a protest against idolatry.  But it is not the idolatry of the Egyptians being derided, nor is it their gods being defiantly dispatched.  Rather, it is the idolatry of Bnei Yisrael that must be extirpated!  Sojourning in Egypt for generations, Bnei Yisrael have adopted the erroneous beliefs and values of their oppressive hosts.  Conditioned in the comfortable and alluring worship of the Egyptian pantheon, the personable and tangible gods of the River, earth and sky, Bnei Yisrael find the prospect of a single, absolute, morally demanding God, unsettling.  With growing alarm they have witnessed the demolishing not only of their cruel oppressors, but also of their system of belief.  As each plague drives home with greater force the futility of idolatry and their unsolicited selection as God's own, they stand passively by, hopeful of an end to their servitude but disconcerted by the prospect of freedom.  Finally, with dawn about to break after the darkest night, God for the first time imposes a challenge on the people: slaughter the lamb god of Egypt whom you worship, loosen your embrace of idolatry, and demonstrate to YOURSELVES that you are ready for Redemption. 


The placing of the blood on the doorway is not to be understood as an act of confrontation but rather as a symbol of faith.  As such, rather than associating the markings with the outside doorframe which tends to suggest a statement for Egyptian consumption, it is more probably the inside frame that was smeared, implying a message to be internalized by Bnei Yisrael.  Significantly, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Natan both understand that the blood was in fact daubed on the inside frame as a sign for Bnei Yisrael exclusively (see Mekhilta, Chapter 6).


We have seen a variety of sources that seek to explain the meaning of the paschal sacrifice and its attendant rituals.  One thing is clear according to all of the views: like Avraham of old, Bnei Yisrael are about to embark on their odyssey in the world as a free people. That journey will be filled with triumphs as well as with setbacks.   The freedom so hoped for and anticipated was extended to them only after they had taken the first critical spiritual steps, and it is this fact which emerges as an axiom of God's relationship to His people.  Spiritual accomplishments are only possible if one is willing to take spiritual risks, to discard the conventional and customary shackles of a comfortable culture in order to embrace a more profound approach to living, a sincere life of mitzvot.  To do so requires courage, trust and not a small amount of determination.  The Paschal Sacrifice, celebrated for the first time over three thousand years ago and commemorated ever since, serves as a profound example of that possibility.    


Shabbat Shalom


For further study:


1) See Yechezkel Chapter 20 and Yehoshua Chapter 24:14 15 for explicit references to Bnei Yisrael's worship of idolatry in Egypt.  Why, in contrast, does the Torah not state this fact directly?


2) The celebration of the Paschal Sacrifice is one of the few holiday celebrations attested to throughout the Biblical period.  We find it prepared by Yehoshua (3:2-12) when the people of Israel enter the land, by King Chizkiyahu (Divrei HaYamim/Chronicles 2:30:5-15) in the aftermath of the Assyrian exile, by King Yoshiyahu (IBID, 2:35:16-19) as the storm clouds of Babylonian domination begin to gather, and by the nascent community of Jews who return to Zion under the aegis of Cyrus King of Persia (Ezra 6:19-22).  The common theme is that all of these celebrations occur at pivotal moments of national religious renewal, and are often initiated by a leader animated by a spirit of reformation and change.  The Egyptian precedent is therefore repeated not only in deed as a ritual act, but in intent and purpose as well.

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