Pesach: Mistaken Assumptions

Nov 17, 2014

Rabbi Ron-Ami Meir

What is the Rasha – the wicked son – at the Seder really asking when he quips, “What is this Avodah (service) to you?” At first blush, he seems to be challenging the very validity of observing Pesach; he seems oblivious to the need for expressing appreciation to Hashem for His redemption of our nation from Egypt.

What’s generating his cynicism?

The Beis Halevi offers a unique approach to this question. He points out that historically, the lamb was a focus of Egyptian cultic worship. In Shmos 8:22, while defending his request for B’nai Yisroel’s travel permit to the desert to worship Hashem, Moshe Rabeinu asks, “….Can we sacrifice the abomination of Egypt before their very eyes without being stoned [to death]?” Rashi explains that it would be abominable, reprehensible, to the Egyptians were we to slaughter their deity before their eyes.

In Parshas Bo, we’re instructed that once the tenth of Nissan arrives, “Withdraw your hands and take a lamb for yourselves…” (Shmos 12:21) The midrash explains: “Withdraw your hands from idolatry by taking a lamb…” In other words, the initial preparations for the sacrifice, the Korban Pesach, were aimed at weaning us from any respect for Egyptian idolatry. Some commentaries go further, noting that the halacha mandating us to roast the animal intact was directed towards our hosts, a public negation of the beliefs they held dear.

What, then, is the Rasha’s issue? Although he claims to be appreciative of our redemption from bondage, says the Beis Halevi, the son questions the need to annually re-live the redemption via the Korban Pesach. Hundreds and even thousands of years later, the Egyptians no longer worship the lamb. “Ma Ha’avoda Hazos Lachem?” – “What is this worship to you?” asks the wicked son. “In earlier generations, you may have been making a strong statement against idolatry, but now…?”

What’s our response to this son’s query?

His approach suffers from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of Torah: It assumes that the mitzvos are a product of historical circumstance. Would we have been relieved of intensive Pesach cleaning had B’nai Yisroel had a just a little more time to let their dough rise? Could we have had fluffy challahs at our Pesach seder if we’d have only timed our exodus a little more carefully? Imagine the money we’d save at our local grocery if we didn’t have to carefully check each product to ensure that it’s “Kosher for Passover”!

Jewish tradition teaches that “Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world”. If so, it’s understandable how our forefathers could have fulfilled the Torah long before it was presented to the nation at Mt. Sinai. If Avraham Avinu ate matzah on the 15th of Nissan hundreds of years before his descendants hastily left Egypt – what did matzah mean to him? We simply do not know. Although we try to understand the symbolism, the meaning of the mitzvos, the ultimate reason for each mitzvah is, in the end, beyond our comprehension. The same goes for the laws of Korban Pesach. The Torah, as an emanation of Divine wisdom, remains as much a mystery to us as G-d Himself.

In other words, historical circumstance can help bring out elements of the rationale behind a given mitzvah. The historical event, however, is not the reason why the mitzvah was commanded in the first place.

At this year’s Pesach Seder, we have a renewed opportunity to re-connect with the ultimate reason as to why we perform even the most apparently logical and symbolic mitzvos. All the mitzvos, says the Beis Halevi, are a-rational “chukim”. The proof? After detailing the mitzvos of Pesach, the Torah says (Shmos 13:10): “Veshamarta es hachuka hazos lemoada miyamim yamima” – “You should observe this statute (“chuka”) at its time every year.”

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