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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Korban Pesach: A Symbol of Faith and Commitment

The Torah in parshat Bo delineates the events of the exodus from Egypt (yetziat Mitzrayim), including the pivotal role of korban Pesach in the unfolding of that momentous evening of redemption. The Torah details the procedure of this korban (Shemot 12:21-28), beginning with the charge of "mishchu u-kechu lachem tzone le-mishpehoteichem ve-shachatu ha-pasach"; it, subsequently, records the enduring legacy of this korban, as well(12:24-27)- "u-shemartem et hadavar ha-zeh le-chok lecha u-le-banecha ad olam...ve-hayah ki tavou el ha-aretz...ve-hayah ki yomru aleichem beneichem...va-amartem zevach Pesach hu la-Hashem..." After interspersing present and future motifs of the korban, the Torah returns to an account of the events of that night, culminating with the actual redemption and exodus itself (12:41-42).

It is striking that the Torah then revisits the laws of korban Pesach (Shemot 12:43-50), with the suggestive introduction (12:43) of "zot chukat ha-Pesach", immediately followed by the law ("kol ben neichar lo yochal bo") that prohibits idolaters or even Jewish apostates (yisrael meshumad- Mechilta op cit.) from partaking in the korban. Why did the Torah add this post-script at this juncture when it previously specified many of the korban's regulations and already alluded to its enduring normative status (12:24) as a "chok lecha u-le banecha ad olam". What accounts for the interruption of the narrative at a critical moment in its unfolding with allusions to the continuing relevance of this korban? It is also significant that subsequent to formulating further principles of korban Pesach, the Torah reformulates the climax of the narrative (12:51)- "va-yehi be-etzem ha-yom ha-zeh hotzi Hashem et Benei Yisrael mei-eretz Mitzrayim al tzivotam"- as if to convey that this rendition of enduring Pesach laws, too, is intimately connected with the actual experience of the exodus and redemption.

We may better understand the double juxtaposition of korban Pesach laws and yetziat Mitzrayim if we recognize that undoubtedly this later section is not merely a random supplement of Pesach laws, but is meant to highlight a crucial dimension of the exodus experience and legacy. Moreover, it seems evident that "kol ben neichar lo yochal bo", the exclusion of idolators and apostates, was carefully chosen to characterize the korban Pesach, and by extension, the important perspective it contributes to yetziat Mitzrayim.

The exclusion of Jewish apostates from the consumption of a korban is unique to korban Pesach. The Sefer ha-Chinuch (no. 13) explains that the rationale for this unusual law is self-evident since korban Pesach embodies the ideal of faith in Hashem and an unreserved commitment to leading a Torah life, principles that are absolutely incompatible with the figure of an apostate. Minchat Chinukh and others debate some of the nuances of this prohibition that may defy the routine regulations of korbonot. They examine the possibility that apostasy in this particular context may be restricted to idolatry (as opposed to Shabbat desecration, for example,), or that an apostate may be excluded from Pesach even if he is not technically subject to the death penalty because he was never properly warned (hatraah). If the exclusion of apostates derives from the nature of korban Pesach as an offering of faith and commitment, it might be expected that the application of this principle may not conform to other korbonot norms.

Elsewhere (Pesach Sheni: A Quest for Spiritual Opportunity and Natural Identity; Chag ha-Pesach: the Ideal Introduction to Chag ha-Matzot) we have elaborated other unique facets of korban Pesach, suggesting that it constitutes an expression of national identification in a manner that is parallel to brit milah on the individual plane. The fact that both milah and Pesach constitute the only positive commandments whose neglect triggers a punishment of karet and that milah is a prerequisite for Pesach reinforces this notion. [The mixing of dam milah and dam Pesach in the context of Pesach Mitzrayim, referred to by the midrash and Targum Yonaton, may be explained on this basis, as well. See, also, Chidushei ha-Grim, Shemot 12:13. Furthermore, it should be noted that the disqualification of arel in Pesach follows the exclusion of the apostate. It too, is a singular law that may reflect the theme of faith and absolute commitment, as well as of the distinctiveness of Kelal Yisrael. See the Minchat Chinukh's comments on the prohibition of arel. See, also, Chidushei ha-Grim, Shemot 12:43.] Moreover, Kelal Yisrael's initiative to establish a Pesach Sheni ("lamah nigara...") attests to the understanding that korban Pesach affords a singular spiritual opportunity to identify emphatically with the national destiny, and spiritual aspirations of Kelal Yisrael.

The charge of korban Pesach challenged the very faith and commitment of Benei Yisrael, testing their qualifications for nationhood and the ambitious destiny of being an am Hashem and a goy kadosh. It demanded political courage, a massive leap of faith and a total abandonment of political correctness for an enslaved, embattled people to defy the most basic cultural norms of the host country. "Ad she-yishchetu eloheichem le-eineichem" (slaughtering the Egyptian deity openly) was an incredibly ambitious feat which exemplified Kelal Yisrael's vast potential, qualifying them not only for physical exodus and redemption but for the ultimate telos of that exodus, the Revelation at Sinai. The korban Pesach, then, encapsulated the goal of the exodus, even as it also facilitated that process.

We may now appreciate the double juxtaposition of the experience of the exodus and the renditions of the laws of the korban Pesach, as well as the emphasis on its enduring binding character. The Pesach conveyed the need to surrender one's will and even one's sensibilities to Hashem as a sine qua non to achieving authentic freedom and redemption. True liberty consists of internalizing Torah values and embracing belief and faith in Hashem, even in trying times and circumstances, even rejecting accepted cultural norms. The experience of exodus and redemption absent the Pesach is shallow, hollow, even meaningless. The detailed Pesach process, then, is not really an interruption of the exodus narrative. The Torah considered it particularly crucial to underscore that this Pesach legacy is not confined to a given era and location, but transcends place, time and circumstances. Hence, the initial allusion to the relevance and binding character of the Pesach laws. Moreover, in the aftermath of the full narrative, it was important to revisit the principle motifs underlying the Pesach. The laws delineated in this second context (exemplified by ben neichar lo yochal bo) normalized the motifs of faith, sacrifice and commitment that were viscerally experienced in the actual event of the exodus. By reiterating and integrating these themes in the structure of hilchot korban Pesach, the Torah provided a clear perspective on the ultimate spiritual objective of the exodus and redemption. This prompted a reiteration, really a reformulation, of the experience itself: "vayehi bi-etzem hayom hazeh hozi Hashem et Benei Yisrael mei-eretz Mitzrayim al zivotam."

The spiritual challenge of yetziat Mitzrayim endures throughout history. Every generation invariably confronts its own crises. Sometimes halachic commitment entails physical hardship or financial sacrifice; other circumstances may demand a policy of political isolation, or may impose a posture of social disengagement and cultural alienation. Irrespective of the particulars, it is incumbent upon us to respond in a principled manner, embracing the model of Pesach Mitzrayim in all of its spiritual ambition so that we will truly be worthy of our status as am Hashem and goy kadosh.

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