Frederick L. Klein

Bo: Commitment as a Prelude to Redemption

The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is called in rabbinic tradition, Shabbat HaGadol, the great shabbat.  It is customary on this shabbat for rabbis to deliver an extended sermon, specifically dealing with the laws of chametz and matzah or the seder night.  Yet, there is no consensus concerning what makes this shabbat so great.  The key to the riddle seems to deal with the first Paschal offering that was given in the land of Egypt.

To recap, on the 10th day of Nissan, the Jewish people are told by God to take a lamb, and then watch over it until the 14th of the month, when the lamb should be slaughtered.  The blood should be affixed on the doorpost and the lintels, and when the angel of death sees the blood on the door, the angel will ‘pass over’ the first-born Hebrew slave and strike down every first-born Egyptian (Ex. 12:3-13).   According to rabbinic tradition, they actual slaughter of the lamb occurred on a Thursday, and thus the day upon which the lamb was taken was Shabbat.  Now what makes this shabbat so instructive?  Why should this be a ‘Shabbat hagadol’? Furthermore, in previous plagues God had already distinguished between Israel and Egypt.  Why was a sign needed here per se?

While the commentaries offer many various explanations, including that the blood had some apotropaic element and that really an angel executed the Egyptians, not God, I would like to suggest another tradition underscored in some commentaries.  They note that unlike later generations, the taking of the lamb on the tenth day was not part of the central ritual.  If so what role did it play, and why would God command them to take this animal days in advance.  The key is to understand that unlike the other plagues, which just happened, this plague includes the active engagement of every Jew, and begins on shabbat when they took this lamb.

There are many reasons for the plagues and their educational value, but clearly one audience was the Jewish people themselves.  Moses had originally gone before Pharaoh not to ask for their freedom, but respite from work so they could go into the desert and worship God.  Pharaoh, seeing himself as a God, simply saw this request as one for ‘time off’ that would impact the bottom line.  He neither recognized God, nor the people’s relationship with their God.   Similarly, shabbat was not a day dedicated to the worship of God, but a day off from their purpose in life, labor.  In Moses’ first meeting with Pharaoh, he remarks, “The people of the land are already so numerous, and you would have them cease from their labors! “(Ex. 5:5). The word VeHishbatetem/ would have them cease, is the same root as shabbat.  In this one line, Pharaoh makes it clear that he is their god, and they have no existence outside of him.

Given this context, the message of this shabbat before the plague of the firstborn was clear to everyone.  This was not a day off from Pharaoh’s imposed labor, reflecting laziness, but a day prepared for worship.  They publicly took the Shabbat day as a day of demonstration, signaling to all their loyalty to God.  Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman remarks that the Passover sacrifice was akin to the daily sacrifices later offered in the Temple, which affirm the ongoing daily relationship with God.  In our example, the nature of the Pesach offering was like a thanksgiving offering, a Todah. This sacrifice is offered in gratitude for salvation, and in this case their upcoming liberation. Thus, the taking of the lamb in full daylight on Shabbat was a political rebellion, ‘freeing themselves from the enslavement of man’, and directing their worship towards God.  They were signaling to not only God and the Egyptians, but themselves; they were ready to live a more exalted life defined by service to God.

The rabbis tell us that taking this lamb in broad daylight was a political risk, as the lamb was seen as a god by the Egyptians.  Therefore, slaughtering the lamb would be an active rejection of their idolatry, like smashing their idols.  The midrash elaborates that throughout the Shabbat day the Egyptians asked what the Israelites were doing, and upon telling them they were going to sacrifice these lambs, it was a miracle that the Egyptians did not respond violently.  After nine plagues, they were silenced and dumbstruck.  Nonetheless, this was an act of dedication, of bravery.  The taking of the blood is seen by Italian commentator Umberto Cassuto as the readiness of the Jewish people to even sacrifice themselves for their beliefs.

Interestingly, in this complex ritual of the Paschal lamb, a critical component was missing, an altar.  In Jewish cultic law, depending upon the sacrifice, different parts were placed on the altar, and the blood- representing the life force- was spilled on the corners of the altar.  Here the only blood spilled is on the doorpost and the lintels, and these facts provide the key.  The altar was the home itself, the family unit.  In following the commandments of this first Passover, the Jewish people demonstrated that they were ready to dedicate themselves to a new mission.  They were to become servants of God and not slaves to Pharaoh.

Given this, we can understand the true reason that the angel ‘passed over’ the houses of the Jewish people.  It wasn’t simply that the angel saw the blood but saw the significance of the blood.  The blood represented the existential commitment of the Jewish people to their new future.  It was this commitment that distinguished between the first born of the Jews and the first born of the Egyptians.  In this act, the Jewish people displayed their readiness to enter a covenantal relationship with God; it was the first mitzvah they observed.

Unlike the other plagues, the last plague called for the Jewish people to act themselves.  You can take a people out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt out of the people.  They needed to do this willingly.  Moses commands them ‘mishchu u’kechu’, ‘pull back and take for yourself a lamb for each house’.  The midrash teaches, ‘pull back – from your idolatrous ways, and only afterword take the Paschal lamb for yourself (Midrash Aggadah 12:21:1).

Many people take their Judaism as a given in life, something they do not need to earn.  Perhaps many even take their Judaism for granted.  The story of the Passover sacrifice teaches that for the people to be liberated, to become the Jewish people, they needed to make existential commitments.  They needed to be ready to make sacrifices, and they needed to be ready with their staffs in hand to move forward into the unknown desert, an unknown future.

Many people complain that Judaism is not ‘accessible’, and that we need to create entry ways that are welcoming.  This is undeniably true, but a welcoming open gesture without any real sacrifice or expectation is probably a Judaism not worth living for.  For over four hundred years the Jewish people were in pain, but at the same time they were slumbering.  According to many rabbinic traditions they forgot who they were.  In taking the lamb on the tenth of Nissan, they demonstrated they were ready for a new journey, a new future.   This shabbat for them was a spiritual awakening.

What will be the discrete things we will do in our Jewish life to signal that we too are ready for the journey? What sacrifices will we make?

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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