They shall eat the flesh [of the Passover offering] on that night, roasted in fire, with matzot and bitter herbs. Do not eat of it half-done, or cooked or boiled in water; only roasted in fire
We experience life as an endless chain of urges and strivings. We desire something, agonize over our lack of it, and expend our energies and resources in pursuit of it. And when our goal is actually attained, our pleasure and satisfaction are short-lived: already the next striving is forming in our hearts, already the fire of desire is consuming our lives.
We might, at times, envy the tranquility of those who are free of ambition, but it is the relentless seekers whom we admire and emulate. In our own experience, we look upon our periods of agitated quest as the high points of our lives. For we sense that while the tranquil person is at peace with himself, the striving person is relating to something greater than the self, something more than the here and now.
In the twelfth chapter of Exodus, G‑d communicates to Moses the laws of thekorban pesach, the Passover offering.
On the whole, the Torah is a pragmatic document. The events it describes are almost always physical events, and the mitzvot it commands are for the most part physical actions. But the Kabbalists and the chassidic masters insist that the Torah’s every word also relates to the spiritual dynamics of our lives. Each law of Torah—each organ and limb of its body—has its corresponding element in the soul of Torah.
The same is true of the laws of the Passover offering. In addition to their practical observance, they also instruct and address the inner life of our soul. But before we can discuss some of the spiritual applications of the korban pesach, we need to take a more detailed look at its practical laws.
When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, every Jewish household, or group of smaller households, would bring a lamb or kid to the Temple on the fourteenth of Nissan, the day preceding the festival of Passover. The lamb would be slaughtered in the Temple courtyard, its blood would be sprinkled on the altar, and certain portions of it would be burned atop the altar. It would then be roasted on a spit over a fire. That night—the first night of Passover—its meat would be eaten with matzah and maror (bitter herbs), which together constitute the three staples of the Seder. (Today the meat of the Passover offering is represented at the Seder by the afikoman, a piece of matzah eaten at the end of the meal.)
Various types of korbanot were offered in the Holy Temple, but the Passover offering was unique in many ways, for it was governed by a set of laws that applied to no other offering. Some of these differences are specified in the fifth chapter of the Talmudic tractate of Zevachim, where the Talmud contrasts the Passover offering with two other korbanot—the firstborn offering (bechor) and the tithe offering (maaser):
The firstborn, tithe and Passover offerings are kodashim kallim. They can be slaughtered anywhere in the Temple courtyard, and their blood requires only one sprinkling, as long as it is directed toward the foundation of the altar. They differ, however, in how they are to be eaten. The firstborn offering is eaten by the priests, the tithe offering by anyone; both can be eaten throughout the city [of Jerusalem], in any form of food preparation, for two days and one night. The Passover offering can be eaten only at night, and only up to midnight, and only by those registered for it, and only roasted by fire. (Talmud, Zevachim 56b)
To briefly explain: The Torah commands the Jew to bring the firstborn of his cattle or sheep as an offering to G‑d. Also to be offered is a tithe of the animals born in the herd or flock (once a year, the year’s yield was herded into a pen, and the animals let out one at a time; every tenth animal to emerge was marked and pronounced holy to G‑d, and brought as an offering). The firstborn, tithe and Passover offerings all belong to a class of korbanot called kodashim kallim, and they resemble each other in the procedures of their offering upon the altar; but the rules pertaining to the eating of the Passover offering differ from those relating to the first two.
The firstborn and the tithe offerings can be eaten for two days and a night (on the day it was offered, on the following night, and on the following day until sunset), while the Passover offering can be eaten only on the night following its offering, and only until midnight. Another difference is that the firstborn and the tithe offerings can be prepared in any way the eater desires—boiled, stewed, baked, roasted, etc.—while the Passover offering has to be roasted on a spit over the fire, and cannot be prepared in any other way (not even as a pot roast cooked in its own juices with no other liquid added).
All these details—the laws of the firstborn, tithe and Passover offerings, and the differences between them—have their counterparts in the inner life of the soul.
First, Last and Over
The teachings of Kabbalah describe our world as founded upon ten divine attributes (sefirot) from which derive the spiritual form and substance of reality. Thus, the number ten represents the seder hishtalshelut (literally, “order of evolution”)—the spiritual order of things that G‑d instituted in His creation. “Firstborn” represents chochmah, the first and loftiest phase of the seder hishtalshelut; “tithe” refers to malchut, the last and lowest of the order. (Accordingly, the firstborn offering was eaten by the kohanim, who represent the higher, more spiritual callings of life, while the tithe offering was eaten by the farmer who brought it, representing the lowest, or most material, stratum of creation.) Together, the first and the tenth embrace the totality of the created reality.
Passover, as its name indicates, relates to that which transcends seder hishtalshelut, that which overleaps the standard processes of creation. The Passover offering is so named in attestation of the fact that G‑d leaped over the homes of the Jewish firstborn when He killed all Egyptian firstborn on the night of the Exodus, despite the fact that by all standard criteria the Jews were no more deserving of life than the Egyptians. Passover is G‑d’s disregarding of the very rules by which He ordered His world, and our reciprocation of His deed by rising above the dictates of nature and normalcy in our devotion to Him.
This explains the difference in how the Passover offering is eaten, as opposed to the firstborn and tithe offerings.
As we noted in the opening lines of this essay, life can be viewed as a cycle of striving and realization, yearning and gratification. The common metaphors for these two states are fire and water. Fire connotes thirst and upward striving; water suggests settling down and satiation.
A normal life—life as defined by the “order of evolution” from chochmah to malchut—is nourished by both fire and water. Some meals are cooked steeped in the water of contentment; others have lesser degrees of liquid to temper the fire of life; occasionally, one even partakes of a roast—a spurt of utter striving, of desire unsatiated by a single drop of gratification.
The Passover offering, however, can be experienced only one way—roasted on the fire. When a soul reaches for G‑d—not for the glimmers of divinity to be found within creation and experienced by conventional spiritual endeavor, but for G‑d Himself, as He transcends existence and reality—it is utterly consumed by an unceasing desire. For man can never capture anything of the divine essence. He can only strive for it, his soul a pure fire, with nary a drop of water to slake his thirst, without even a pot to contain his fervor.
The firstborn and tithe offerings were eaten for two days and a night. The Passover offering was eaten only at night.
In the course of our history we have experienced days of divine light, as well as nights of spiritual darkness. Generally speaking, there were two daytime eras—the periods in which the first, and then the second, Beit Hamikdash manifested the divine presence in our world. Between these two days was a brief night—the seventy-year Babylonian galut, when the Holy Temple lay in ruins and the people of Israel were exiled from the Holy Land.1 Following the sunset of the second day, we were plunged into the blackest of nights—into our current centuries-long galut, rife with suffering and persecution, confounded by doubt and spiritual dissonance, and marked by the near-total concealment of the face of G‑d.
A normal relationship with G‑d could be had only in the “two days and a night” that preceded our present galut. These were times in which G‑d showed Himself to man—even in Babylon we had prophets and other expressions of divine immanence. But when the sun set on the second day, the flesh of the firstborn and tithe offerings could no longer be eaten. No longer could the divine truth be experienced within the workings of nature or accessed by the conventional processes of spiritual endeavor. No longer could man experience gratification in his spiritual life, for a glimpse of the divine had become an elusive dream.
In this night of nights, man’s striving for the divine is an unquenchable fire, an unrealizable yearning, an unconsummatable love. But for that very reason, it is deeper and truer than the fire-and-water concoctions of the past. In this night of nights, our yearning for G‑d is not focused upon first or tenth attributes, or filtered through orders of evolution. In this night of nights, our yearning for G‑d is not mitigated by plateaus of gratification. It passes over all systems and processes, to strive for the very essence of G‑d—an endless striving for the most endless of objectives.
||The First Temple stood for 410 years, from the year 2928 from creation (833 BCE) to 3338 (423 BCE). The Second Temple stood for 420 years, from 3408 (353 BCE) to 3829 (69 CE).
TORAH STUDIES: Parshat Bo
Tevet 29, 5774 · January 1, 2014
Two unusual features distinguish the tenth plague—the smiting of the Egyptian firstborn—from the other nine that G-d brought against the Egyptians. Firstly, Moses announced the specific time that it would take place (“about midnight”), and secondly, the Israelites themselves were commanded to take precautions against the plague afflicting them—they were to stay indoors, and set a sign, in blood, on their doorposts. The Rebbe explains why these features were attached only to this plague, and how they indicate to us the path that we must follow to bring about the redemption of the future—the Messianic Age.
1. The Time and the Precautions
When Moses announced to Pharaoh the coming of the final plague, the smiting of the firstborn, he mentioned the time that it would occur. G-d had said that it would take place at midnight. Moses said that it would be at “about midnight,”1 fearing that Pharaoh’s astrologers might make a mistake in their calculations of the precise fixing of midnight and might accuse him of inaccuracy.2 Nonetheless, this raises a difficulty. Why was the timing of the plague mentioned at all? The mere warning of its imminence would surely have been sufficient, as it was in the case of the other nine plagues. We are forced to conclude that there is a special and significant connection between the plague of smiting the firstborn and the time of midnight, so that in mentioning one, Moses had to mention the other.
In two further ways, the tenth plague was unique.
Firstly, the Jews had to make a special sign “on the two doorposts and the lintel”3 of their houses, a sign in the blood of circumcision and of the Paschal lamb,4 so that the plague would not be visited on them.
Secondly, they had to remain indoors throughout the night: “And none of you shall go out from the entrance of his house until the morning,” because “once the force of destruction is given permission (to unleash itself) it makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked.”5
But why should these provisions have been necessary? The previous plagues had been directed solely against the Egyptians, without the Israelites needing to take any special precautions to preserve their immunity. Why was the tenth plague different in this respect? And why were two precautions (the sign of the blood, and the confinement to their houses) needed?
2. The Uniqueness of the Final Plague
We can approach an answer by first understanding that the other nine plagues were not of the kind whereby “the force of destruction is given permission (to unleash itself).” They were limited to a specific manner and extent of damage. The hail, for example, destroyed “the flax and the barley… but the wheat and the spelt were not smitten because they were not grown up.”6 But the smiting of the firstborn was not limited to any specific manner of destruction; the force which “makes no distinction between the righteous and the wicked” was set loose—and therefore the Israelites had to guard themselves against it.
At a deeper level, the smiting of the firstborn was unique in its purpose, not only in its manner. The other plagues were not primarily to destroy, but to create in the Egyptians an awareness of G-d: “In this you shall know that I am the L-rd.”7 And this was not a lesson that needed to be enforced amongst the Israelites, who already acknowledged G-d.8 It also meant that in the first nine plagues, those who were afflicted were not killed, so that they could benefit from this revelation of G-d’s power. But in the tenth plague, since the firstborn were killed, the aim could not have been (as regards the victims) to educate them. It was to punish and destroy them. And in this case the voice of strict justice could claim: What is the difference between the Israelites in their idolatry9 and degeneracy, and the Egyptian firstborn? Surely both deserve punishment? Hence the Israelites’ need to safeguard themselves against the force of destruction—the instrument of strict justice.
These safeguards were of two orders. In Egypt generally, the force of destruction was “given permission” to loose itself. Since it is indiscriminate and has no limitations, no “sign” is a protection against it. Therefore the Israelites had to withdraw to their houses. Within them (since they were “passed over” by G-d) the plague was subject to a limitation—and so there was room (and necessity) for a “sign” which would single out Jew from Egyptian.
3. Midnight and Essence
But what is still difficult to understand is this: The voice of strict justice raised the question, “What is the difference” between a G-dless Egypt and a sinful Jewish people? How could a “sign” have answered the claim?
The answer is that the tenth plague was executed by “G-d Himself in His glory and His essence,” G-d as He transcends characterization, in particular, as He is beyond the attribute of strict justice. At this level, the accusations brought in the name of severity and justice are silent, inoperative.
This is the connection between the tenth plague and midnight. For midnight is the moment when this all-transcending face of G-d is revealed. Midnight binds the two halves of the night, the first half which leads from light into darkness and is therefore a symbol of severity and holding-back (gevurah), and the second which leads from darkness into light, and stands for kindness and giving-forth (chesed). And so, momentarily harmonizing these two opposing tendencies and thereby transcending them, midnight is the time at which G-d in His Essence is revealed.10
Thus at the time of the tenth plague, G-d displayed his essential love for Israel, a love which in its infinity finds no place for the accusations of the voice of justice. When the voice claims, “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” (Are they not equal?) G-d answers, “Yet I loved Jacob and I hated Esau.”11 For His love for the Jewish people is as deep and invulnerable as the love of a father for his children: “You are the children of the L-rd your G-d.”12
This is why Moses told Pharaoh the time of the plague (“about midnight”). In this, he was hinting that it would be brought about by G-d in His transcendence. For otherwise Pharaoh and his court would have been convinced that a plague whose purpose was to destroy and not to educate, would afflict the Israelites as well, since they too were guilty of sins. Only a revelation of G-d’s unconditional love (i.e., at midnight) would have saved them.
4. Sign and Love
Why, though, did the Israelites still need a sign?
The answer is that to draw down into the physical world a revelation of G-d, man must perform acts of service, the acts which are specified in the Torah. Even G-d’s unconditional love, which is always present and constant, requires an active response by the Jew if he is to internalize it and bring it into openness of revelation. But in this case, since the love is unconditional, the response, too, must be unconditional—going beyond the limits of rationality.
Both of the signs—the blood of circumcision and of the Paschal lamb—were of this character. The covenant of circumcision is performed on a Jewish child who is only eight days old, at an age when his faculty of reason is as yet undeveloped. It is a union between the Jew and G-d which goes beyond the rational. And the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb was at that time so fraught with danger as to constitute an act of self-sacrifice (mesirat nefesh). The lamb was an Egyptian deity. And not only were the Israelites to kill it, but they also had to keep it for four days beforehand with the full knowledge of the Egyptians. Self-sacrifice is never rational. And so the Paschal lamb was itself a sign of a Jewish response to G-d that surpassed reason.
Therefore these two signs were answered by G-d with an act of supra-rational love—the love of midnight, of G-d’s Essence, of the delivery from the tenth plague.
5. Faith and Reason
Now we can resolve an apparent contradiction in the statements of the Rabbis as to the virtue in whose merit the Israelites were redeemed from Egypt. In one place, we find that it was their faith:13 “And the people believed, and when they heard that the L-rd had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked upon their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshipped.”14 In other places,15 it is stated that it was a reward for their signs of blood: “In your blood: Live.”16
But the two opinions are one. The signs were of a bond between Jew and G-d surpassing reason. And their faith was one which went beyond reason. Before the redemption, “no slave had been able to escape from Egypt because the land was closely shut in (on all sides).”17 How much less reasonable was it to believe that 600,000 could escape, a people broken by the rigors of oppression, and threatened with extinction through Pharaoh’s decree that every male child be drowned. The pure faith with which the Israelites believed in Moses’ mission and G-d’s promised deliverance went far beyond the rational. And this faith aroused the unconditional love in G-d for His people, which constituted their inseparable bond. The signs by which it was then expressed, brought the revelation of G-d’s love down to this world.
6. The Future Redemption
“Like the days of your exodus from the land of Egypt, I will demonstrate wonders.”18This means the future redemption will parallel the redemption of the past.
The deliverance from Egypt was a reward for the supra-rational faith which was so internalized by the Israelites that it affected even their most extraneous powers (signified by the blood of circumcision) and even the non-human environment (the Paschal lamb).
So, too, will the future redemption be a reward for faith—the faith which disregards the great concealments of G-d that our exile brings, and which still holds firm to the belief in the Messiah; a faith which does not hover at the outer edges of our minds, but which constitutes our most inward certainty and extends to every facet of our being.
(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 864-8, 872)
||Rashi, ad loc. Berachot, 4a.
||Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, ch. 29; Targum Yonathan, Shemot 12:13. Zohar, Part II, 35b.
||Rashi, Shemot 12:22.
||Shemot 7:17. Cf. also 8:18; 9:14.
||Cf. Torah Or, Vaera, 57a.
||Yalkut Reuveni, Shemot 14:27; Zohar, Part II, 170b.
||Cf. Or Hatorah, Vayeichalek Aleihem etc., ch. 5. Bereishit, p. 75 ff.
||Mechilta, Shemot 14:31.
||Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, ch. 29. Mechilta, Shemot 12:6, cited by Rashi, Ibid.
||Mechilta, Shemot 18:11; cited by Rashi, 18:9.
|Adapted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe More articles… |
WEEKLY ALIYOT: Parshat Bo
Tevet 29, 5774 · January 1, 2014
Bo Aliya Summary
General Overview: In this weeek’s reading, Bo, the last three plagues – Locust, Darkness, and Death of the Firstborn – are inflicted upon the Egyptians. Moses commands the Israelites concerning the Paschal Offering and the laws of the seder. After the final plague, Pharaoh unconditionally releases the Israelites from his land.
First Aliyah: Plague Eight: At G‑d’s behest, Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and delivered a warning: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let My people go so that they can worship me!” They informed Pharaoh that if he does not allow the Israelites to go, Egypt will be attacked by a plague of locust. After Moses and Aaron left, Pharaoh’s servants begged him to allow the Israelites to leave. “Don’t you yet know that Egypt is lost?” they argued. Pharaoh called back Moses and Aaron and offered to allow the Israelites to leave—provided that they leave behind their children as security. Moses and Aaron refused the offer, and Pharaoh stubbornly refused to allow the Israelites to go.
Second Aliyah: Moses stretched out his hands and swarms of locusts swept down on Egypt. They consumed absolutely every blade of grass and all the crops. Pharaoh beseeched Moses to pray to G‑d for the removal of the locusts, promising to then release the Israelites. Moses prayed, and no sooner than a wind carried the locusts back to the Red Sea and Pharaoh changed his mind yet again. Plague Nine: A frightful darkness descended upon Egypt. For days, the entire nation was incapacitated by the debilitating pitch darkness. “But for all the children of Israel there was light in their dwellings.”
Third Aliyah: Pharaoh summoned Moses again, offering to release the Israelites if they leave behind their cattle. Moses refused the condition. Pharaoh sent Moses away, warning him to never appear in his presence again, “for on the day that you see my face, you shall die!” Moses agreed, but not before he delivered a final message that G‑d relayed to him at that moment. G‑d told Moses that he would visit one more plague upon Egypt, after which Pharaoh will actually drive the Israelites from his land. Parenthetically, at that time G‑d also instructed Moses to ask the Israelites to borrow from their Egyptian neighbors jewels, silver and gold. The Israelites complied, and the Egyptians readily lent out their valuables.
Fourth Aliyah: Moses delivered G‑d’s warning to Pharaoh: “At midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt. Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the slave woman…” G‑d then gave the Israelites their first mitzvah, that of determining the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) each month and establishing a lunar calendar. G‑d also told Moses to instruct the Israelites to designate a lamb for the Paschal Offering. The Israelites were to sacrifice this lamb and consume it, together with matzah and bitter herbs, on the eve of the fifteenth of Nissan. The blood of the lamb was to be smeared on the lintels and doorposts of the Israelite residences, and all inside those homes would be spared when G‑d descended to smite the Egyptian firstborn. G‑d also instructed that for all future generations this day would signal the beginning of the seven-day holiday of Passover, during which no leaven can be eaten or possessed.
Fifth Aliyah: Moses gathered the Israelite elders and conveyed to them G‑d’s instructions.
Sixth Aliyah: Plague Ten: At the stroke of midnight G‑d slew all the Egyptian firstborn. No Egyptian home was spared, and Egypt erupted in a great outcry. Pharaoh awoke and raced to Moses and begged him to take the Israelites and leave. The Egyptians pressured the Israelites to leave as soon as possible, and the Israelites complied. Equipped with all the valuables they had borrowed from the Egyptians, and provisions for the way – dough that was baked before having time to rise – the Israelites left Egypt at midday of the fifteenth of Nissan. This section concludes with some more rules that pertain to the Paschal Offering.
Seventh Aliyah: G‑d gave the Israelites several mitzvot: 1) All male Israelite firstborn were henceforth sanctified to G‑d. 2) Eat matzah on Passover. 3) Recount the story of the Exodus at the Passover seder. 4) Bring all male firstborn of kosher as sacrifices. 5) Redeem all male firstborn donkeys for a sheep—which is then brought as a sacrifice. 6) Don tefillin on the head and arm.
PARSHAH IN A NUTSHELL: Bo
Tevet 29, 5774 · January 1, 2014
The last three of the Ten Plagues are visited on Egypt: a swarm of locusts devours all the crops and greenery; a thick, palpabledarkness envelops the land; and all the firstborn of Egypt are killed at the stroke ofmidnight of the 15th of the month of Nissan.
G-d commands the first mitzvah to be given to the people of Israel: to establish a calendarbased on the monthly rebirth of the moon. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a “Passover offering” to G-d: a lamb or kid is to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of every Israelite home, so that G-d should pass over these homes when He comes to kill the Egyptian firstborn. Theroasted meat of the offering is to be eaten that night together with matzah (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs.
The death of the firstborn finally breaks Pharaoh’s resistance and he literally drives the Children of Israel from his land. So hastily do they depart, there is no time for their dough to rise, and the only provisions they take along are unleavened. Before they go, they ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold, silver and garments, draining Egypt of its wealth.
The Children of Israel are commanded to consecrate all firstborn and to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year by removing all leaven from their possession for seven days, eating matzah, and telling the story of their redemption to their children. They are also commanded to wear tefillin on the arm and head as a reminder of the Exodus and their resultant commitment to G-d.