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Living lessons from the Paschal sacrifice

Here are 14 ways to extrapolate from the obscure details of the holiday's animal offering and improve our own behavior
Cooking the Paschal offering. (via YouTube)
Cooking the Paschal offering. (via YouTube)

As we’re about to leave Egypt, we are commanded to offer a paschal lamb. While the biblical mandate is presented rather briefly in chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, the Talmud in Tractate Pesachim – completed this week in the Daf Yomi –  devotes five chapters to explicating its laws. Built into its intricacies are 14 relevant spiritual messages.

  1. Stay humble (inferred from “lo tzibach al chametz,” to have no leavening on the altar). By noon on the day before Passover, when the sacrifice can be offered, no chametz (leaven) can be in the house (Exodus 23:18; Pesachim 28b). The sacrifice is a celebration of the great victory over Egypt. Precisely when victorious, one could become “bloated.” And so, chametz, puffed-up dough, identified in the Talmud (Berachot 17a) and in later Hasidic literature as being symbolic of hubris and self-absorption, cannot be in one’s possession during Passover, reminding us to remain humble even when most successful.
  2. Make space. Every morning and late afternoon, the korban tamid (standard sacrifice) is the first and last to be offered. There is one exception: the Paschal lamb is offered after the afternoon tamid. Although by dint of its constancy, the tamid has the right to maintain its position as first and last always, it makes way for the Paschal lamb, teaching the importance of stepping back and making space for others when necessary (Pesachim 58a).
  3. Fill yourself with inner meaning (inferred from the Korban Chagigah-Pesach, the sacrifices of this day). Along with the Paschal lamb, the korban chagigah (holiday sacrifice) is offered. The function of the chagigah was to fill a person up prior to eating the Paschal sacrifice. As a result, the Paschal lamb was eaten when one was already satiated (Pesachim 70a). The eating of the Paschal lamb is not primarily for satisfying our physical needs: it is rather to focus on celebrating the inner spiritual meaning of the holiday.
  4. Empathize. (inferred from the principle of not splitting the community). The Paschal sacrifice must be brought in a state of spiritual purity, and is not offered by individuals who for various reasons (such as contact with a dead body) are impure at the time of the offering (these individuals do get a second chance a month after Passover). If the majority of the community is impure, however, the Paschal lamb is still offered by everyone based on the principle that impurity is waived for the sake of community. Interestingly, even those who are pure offer their sacrifices as if their status is one of impurity. In this way, we do not split the community (Pesachim 79b–80a). In other words, no matter my purity, if the majority is impure, I am impure – empathizing with amcha (Your people).
  5. Make a difference (palga palga — 50/50). And suppose, the Talmud asks, half the people are pure, and half are not – what then? The Talmud weaves a discussion about what to do in such circumstances (Pesachim 79b). Why the debate? After all, the possibility of such a perfectly even split is highly unlikely. Here, the law may inspire us to consider the observation made by Maimonides that we should view our deeds and the world as evenly balanced (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4). The next good deed we perform could make all the difference.
  6. Reflect (inferred from the concept of piggul, an abhorred thing). Among the laws of the Paschal lamb — and for that matter all sacrifices — is the concept of piggul (an abhorred thing; Leviticus 7:18, 19:5–7; Pesachim 120b). If one’s thoughts are inappropriate, i.e., imagining eating the sacrifice after its prescribed time, the sacrifice is invalid. Our inner thoughts play a crucial role in carrying out the details of the external ritual obligations as well as in our actions in our daily lives.
  7. Properly prepare (from the importance of designation, intentionality). All who eat of the Paschal lamb must RSVP (Pesachim 61a), registering their intent to join the ritual. This teaches the importance of intentionality — of focusing and preparing before participating in an important ritual. In the end, an act is as meaningful as its preliminaries. As Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik said, there is no holiness without preparation.
  8. Turn fate into destiny (inferred from the nature of tzli, roasting). The Talmud emphasizes that any accumulation of water on the skewer may leave the impression that the Paschal lamb is being cooked, which would invalidate the sacrifice (Pesachim 74a). There must be absolute clarity that the animal is being roasted. This burning simulates the fire of exile. Yet fire can also be a positive force, transforming metal into a more useful instrument for productivity. Indeed, we need to be on fire, we need inner passion, to be redeemed. History has shown that when oppressed, when aflame, we rise to the occasion, become tougher, and have the capacity, as Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik pointed out, to “turn fate into destiny.”
  9. See good in others (inferred from the symbolism of rimon, the pomegranate). The skewer used to roast the sacrifice is pomegranate wood (Mishnah, Pesachim 7:1). The pomegranate reminds us of the rabbinic teaching that even the greatest sinners – like the pomegranate’s outer shell, which is not eaten and, if you will, cast away – have endless inner pure seeds, giving them the capacity to return (Berachot 57a). This concept is reflected in the story told by Dr. Yaffa Eliach, of blessed memory, of the Kapo Schneeweiss who turned on his own people. One Yom Kippur, however, he refused to submit to Nazi demands that he force Jews in the camp to eat. He was shot dead on the spot.  The saintly Bluzhever Rebbe, who narrates the story, commented: “Only then, on that Yom Kippur day in Janowska, did I understand the meaning of the statement in the Talmud: ‘Even the transgressors in Israel are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is filled with seeds.’”
  10. Don’t shame others (as connected to nossar, that which is left over). If the Paschal lamb becomes tamei (impure), it is burned near the Temple. This, says the Talmud, is in order to embarrass the owner, as, no doubt, he was negligent in allowing the sacrifice to become tamei. And yet, the wood used for fire comes from the pyre of the altar (not one’s personal wood). This, says the Talmud (Pesachim 81b), is to avoid embarrassing those who — through no fault of their own — may be too poor to possess wood. An important teaching: While there are times that rebuke through shame is necessary, those moments are rare – ultimately, embarrassing another should be avoided.
  11. Remain silent. The Talmud offers an intricate discussion on what one does and what one says if searching for a designated Paschal lamb that has been lost. Interestingly, it concludes that sometimes the best solution can be achieved if one says nothing, i.e., not detailing to the group registered to partake of that particular sacrifice that he is conducting this search on their behalf. It concludes by underscoring the importance of holding back speech (Pesachim 99a). All my adult life, I’ve been encouraging people to speak out. But the Talmud teaches that sometimes, it is best to remain silent. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, “I have found nothing better for a person than silence” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:17).
  12. Stick to the foundational mission (inferred from the principle of yachid me’ikra, the role of the individual in the community). Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud posits that one cannot sacrifice and eat the Paschal lamb alone, highlighting the importance of community. And while those registered in a group may drop out and join another group, minimally, says Rabbi Yehuda, one of the individuals first signed up must remain (Pesachim 99a). This perhaps teaches that while missions evolve, reshape, even expand, a group that made a commitment to partake of the paschal sacrifice together should never turn its back on its original “roots” – an earlier participant must always be present.
  13. There are second chances (evident from the very existence of Pesach Sheni, the “rain date” for the Paschal offering). If one is too far from the Temple to arrive for the Paschal sacrifice, one is given another opportunity to offer the sacrifice 30 days later, on Pesach Sheni. How far is too far away? One position insists it is even one step outside of the Temple area (Pesachim 93b). Truth be told, one can be far, but close, just as one can be close, and yet far. And so Pesach Sheni could be a second chance for one who is physically close but spiritually distant. Such individuals are warmly welcomed.
  14. Help others pass over (from the meaning of Pesach, pise’ach). The Talmud records differences between the first Paschal lamb slaughtered and those that followed (Pesachim 96a). As we left Egypt, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the two side posts of the door and the lintel of each Jewish home (Exodus 12:7). The Angel of Death, seeing the blood, passed over that home, sparing the firstborn Israelite inside. Hence, the holiday is called Pesach – pass over. But vocalized differently, Pesach could be read as pise’ach — literally, one who limps or is lame. While there is, to my knowledge, no midrash that speaks to this association, it may teach an important message. Lest one think that Passover is meant to celebrate only those of particular strength, with an ability to “pass over,” the term pise’ach reminds us to reach out to the disadvantaged, the vulnerable – those who find it difficult even to walk. As we were downtrodden in Egypt, so too should we be there for those who are downtrodden, forgotten, too often left out. The pise’ach plays a central role in Pesach, in the spirit of the “Ha lachma anya” (This is the bread of affliction) declaration at the beginning the Seder: “Kol ditzrich yetei v’yifsach” (All who are needy are welcome to join in the Pesach feast).

Yes, the laws are intricate. The folios of Talmud run one page, one chapter into another. Still, beneath its surface, the law imparts spiritual messages, touching the soul, helping us soar higher and higher.

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.
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