The Disappearance and Reappearance of Pesach in Tanach

I was privileged to give a shiur in my shul the last afternoon of Pesach on “The Appearance and Disappearance of Pesach in Tanach,” focusing on whether Pesach was celebrated in the midbar and on the disappearance and reappearance of Pesach at later points in Tanach. The sources are here (link). Here are some observations on the topic, corresponding to the sources in the link. My gratitude to everyone who came out to the shiur and offered their ideas and insights.

1) Outside of the original Pesach in Egypt, there is a debate when the ongoing mitzvah of Pesach went into effect. Source 13 seems to suggest that the observance of Pesach is dependent on being in the Land of Israel – “כי תבאו אל הארץ” – a suggestion also made by the Mechiltah (Source 6) which is quoted by Rashi (Source 7). But this is not definitely the case. A different Rashi (Source 8) quotes intermittently from a Gemara (Source 3) and two Sifri’s (Sources 4-5) that the order of the Pesach story within the Book of Bamidbar (see Sources 1-2) – or perhaps the telling of the Pesach story altogether (as implied by the Sifri in Source 5) – indicate to us that there was something inappropriate or shameful about the Jews’ observance of Pesach in the midbar, most famously that this was the only one they observed (Rashi in Source 8 based on the Sifri in Source 5). Yet how could their general lack of Pesach observance in the midbar be to their shame if, like the Mechilta (Source 6) and Rashi (Source 7), the Pesach commandment was not in effect anyway until they entered the Land of Israel? Furthermore, if it is to be bemoaned that they didn’t observe Pesach most years in the midbar, why didn’t they just do so?

These questions can be answered by exploring a Tosafot (Source 10) as well as the commentaries of Mizrachi (Source 16) and Nachalat Yaakov (Source 17) on Rashi. Tosafot explains that the Torah’s limitation of “כי תבאו אל הארץ” indeed precludes the Jews’ observing of Pesach until they have entered, conquered, and settled the Land of Israel. (Nachalat Yaakov [Source 17] wonders why Tosafot could not simply say that this Mitzvah kicks in the moment they enter the Land, not at the later stage of conquering.) The Pesach in Year 2, as well as Yehoshua’s Pesach immediately upon entering the Land, are extra-legal observances (“על פי הדיבור”). If so, wonders Tosafot, what was the shame that the Jews bore for not observing Pesach all those other years in the midbar? To wit Tosafot answers that the true shame lay in the unexpected delay in the midbar brought on by the sin of the spies, which prevented the Jews from entering more quickly and being able to observe Pesach sooner.

Tosafot then takes a different tack, namely that “entering the Land” (“כי תבאו אל הארץ”) may be more metaphorical or aspirational than we have assumed up to now. Take a glance at the list of Land-dependent mitzvot in Source 14. Most are predictable – Shemittah, Bikkurim, Orlah, Challah – but one that sticks out like a sore thumb is #g, Tefillin. Why would Tefillin be a Mitzvah that is dependent on entering the Land? Tosafot responds, based on another opinion here in Gemara Kiddushin, that Tefillin is a mitzvah in whose merit we gained entry to the Land; it is not dependent on being in the Land but is an entrance ticket into the Land. Pesach, too, says Tosfaot, may be viewed in this light, not as a mitzvah dependent on the Land but as a mitzvah upon which entering the Land is contingent. If so, wonders Tosafot, why not observe Pesach all 40 years in the Midbar? To which Tosafot answers that most of time, most people were uncircumcised due to the harsh weather in the midbar, and uncircumcised people cannot participate in the Korban Pesach. This, naturally, is still an implicit dig at the spies, whose actions (and those of the masses of Jews who followed after them) brought on the unexpectedly long journey in the midbar, without which the lack of circumcision would not have become an issue.

Many in the shiur (myself included) did not like this second path taken by Tosafot. Throughout the entire 40 years in the midbar, there were at least a few people (Moshe, Aharon, Yehoshua, and Kalev) who were circumcised and could have brought the Korban Pesach on others’ behalf. Furthermore, until 13 years later there would not have been anyone who was both uncircumcised and of age to bring a Korban Pesach. It is hard to see why the young children born in the early years in the midbar would have prevented the masses of adults Jews from bringing a Korban Pesach. I think this is a very valid question on Tosafot.

2) Mizrachi (Source 16, #ג) takes a creative approach in which the Sifri and Mechiltah do not contradict. According to both, says the Mizrachi, the mitzvah did not take effect until the Jews entered and conquered the Land. The shame which the Jews bore in not observing Pesach in the midbar, then, was that they would have entered the Land sooner had it not been for the spies. What the Mizrachi does not point out is that, utilizing this approach, the two Rashi’s (Sources 7-8) also do not contradict. On the one hand, like Rashi in Source 7, the Jews were not commanded to keep Pesach in the midbar. On the other hand, it was to their shame (as Rashi in Source 8) that the sin of the spies prevented their entering Israel sooner and thus delayed their observance of Pesach.

3) Someone at the Shiur took a very innovative approach to why the Jews observed Pesach in the midbar in Year 2 but never did so again, using a hard-to-understand line in the Sifri (Source 4). While Rashi (Source 8) picks up on the Sifri’s explanation (Source 5) that the Jews’ גנות, shame, was born of their only keeping one Pesach in the midbar, the competing Sifri (Source 4) gives a different explanation for the shame of the Jews in the midbar, namely “שהיה להם אחד עשר חודש שהיו חונים לפני הר סיני,” “that there were eleven months that they were camped before Har Sinai.” This cannot mean that they were lazy in arriving at Har Sinai (לפני meaning prior to), because we know there were 49 days of travel before arriving at Har Sinai after crossing the Yam Suf. What my friend at the shiur explained beautifully is this: Because they remained at Har Sinai an unduly long time (לפני meaning in front of) due to the protracted nature of the Golden Calf incident and the resulting building of the Mishkan, they were still at Har Sinai eleven months later when Pesach again arrived, rather than already being in Israel by that time. What was to their shame was that they were not yet in Israel by Pesach of Year 2, due to their own sins which drew out their stay at Har Sinai. This explains why the Jews would not have been expected to still be in the midbar at the date of Pesach #2, and thus why they needed to be commanded to observe it then (“על פי הדיבור”), but why they were nonetheless allowed to do so extra-legally rather than not observe it at all. Had this been their only mistake, however, they would have been in Israel by Pesach of Year 3. The subsequent 39 Pesach observances, however, were not expected of them because the Jews’ continued languishing in the midbar was due not to the Golden Calf incident, but to that of the spies.

4) Assuming the observance of Pesach was not mandated until the Jews entered or conquered the Land, why would this be so? Rav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch offers a beautiful explanation for the delay (Source 18):

העבדה – במובן רחב, כל חיי האדם הם עבודת ה’, להיות עבד ה’ – להשתמש בכל כוחותיו, בכל רגע מחייו, כדי לקיים את רצון ה’ – היא המטרה הנעלה ביותר, אליה יוכל האדם לשאוף. במובן מצומצם יותר, נקראים “עבודה:” המעשים, בהם מעמידים אנו את עצמנו כל פעם מחדש לשירות ה’, ומכינים עצמנו לשירות זה – הווי אומר, קרבנות ותפילה.

אולם התורה לא כינתה אף קרבן בשם “עבודה,” מלבד קרבן הפסח. ואמנם, היה הפסח הפעולה שסימלה את תחילת כניסתם של האדם היהודי, הבית היהודי, והמדינה היהודית לעבודת ה’. וכן הפסח הינו הפעולה המסמלת תמיד כניסה מחודשת לעבודה זו. לכן, “כי תבאו וגו:'” כאשר יימחו שיירי עקבות שעבוד מצרים, ואתם תהיו שמחים, בני חורין, וישובים על אדמתכם, חיזרו תמיד על “עבודה” זו בהקפדה. העמידו את עצמכם שוב במצב שהיה בראשית הווייתכם הלאומית, בהיותכם חשוכי שמחה, משוללי חירות וקרקע; ושוב, היכנסו מחדש, כאז, לעבודת ה’.

“Avodah” – In the global sense, all of the life of man is service of G-d, to become a servant of Hashem. To strive with all of our efforts, at every second of our lives, to fulfill the will of Hashem – this is the highest and loftiest goal, to which a person is able to strive. In the more localized sense, “Avodah” refers to actions, those through which we are able to stand ourselves up at all times newly to serve Hashem, and prepare ourselves for this service – that is to say, Korbanot and Tefillah (which are referred to as “Avodah”).

However, the Torah does not refer to any Korban as “Avodah” besides the Korban Pesach. And indeed, the Korban Pesach is the activity which symbolizes the beginning of the personal, familial, and national service of Hashem. And likewise, the Pesach is the activity which always symbolizes the renewed entrance into this service. Therefore, [when the Pasuk tell us that] “when you enter the Land” [you are to observe Pesach, it means the following]: When you erase the remainder of the Egyptian subjugation, and you are happy, free, and living on your own Land, you should always review and reflect upon this “Avodah” specifically. You should put yourselves again in a situation like you were at the beginning of your national journey, when you were devoid of happiness, absent of freedom or your own land; and return to, enter newly into, service of Hashem.

This beautiful description of Pesach as the original initiation into, and eternal restoration of, the personal and national service of Hashem lends an important and helpful perspective on three similar stories about Pesach which occur later in Tanach. The first (Source 19) relates to a Korban Pesach organized by King Chizkiyahu, whose reign was a rare bright spot in an otherwise bleak period for the Jewish nation. The second story (Sources 21-22), which in some ways is similar to the first, describes a Korban Pesach sponsored by another extremely positive character, King Yoshiyahu. The final account (Source 27) is of Ezra’s Pesach, brought immediately upon the Jews’ return to Israel following the 70-year exile brought upon by the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash. Let’s look at these three stories in light of Rav Hirsch’s description of what Pesach represents to the Jewish individual and nation.

As made clear in Source 19, Chizkiyahu’s Pesach was part of a program to restore a lost semblance of Jewish sensibility among the populace, but the idea was not without its hiccups. Chizkiyahu wanted the Pesach to be brought in Nissan, but his advisors convinced him to delay the ceremony by one month because so many people were absent and the Kohanim themselves were unprepared. Many Jews scoffed and mocked the messengers sent throughout the kingdom to inform the populace of the upcoming Pesach. In the end, even the Kohanim were taken by surprise that so many people showed up for the Pesach, resulting in a scramble among the Kohanim to prepare themselves in time for 14 Iyar. Clearly, this was a time of what Rav Hirsch would call “כניסה מחודשת לעבודה זו,” a renewed examination of what the service of Hashem should be.

This can be seen even more starkly in the chilling story of Yoshiyahu (Sources 21-22), whose reign followed the terrible reign of King Menashe. By the time Yoshiyahu came along, the religious abyss into which the Jews had sunk was so deep that the discovery of a single Torah scroll was a great surprise to the nation. Reading from the scroll, Yoshiyahu discovered Pesach anew – a literal encapsulation of Rav Hirsch’s description of the entire goal of Pesach: העמידו את עצמכם שוב במצב שהיה בראשית הווייתכם הלאומית, a renewed feeling of being in a similar position to that of the original birth of the nation. Ezra’s Pesach (Source 27), coming at the start of building the second Beit Hamikdash, was likewise a time of national renewal and rebirth. All three stories of national rejuvenation and reexamination are accompanied by Pesach.

Looking at these three stories – Chizkiyahu, Yoshiyahu, and Ezra – in the context of our earlier discussion about when the permanent observance of Pesach began, we are left to wonder how common the bringing of the Korban Pesach even was in the days of Tanach. Recall that the observance may not have begun until the land was settled, presumably the end of the life of Yehoshua. Commenting at some length on the remarkable statement (Source 21) in the Yoshiyahu story that “לֹא נַעֲשָׂה כַּפֶּסַח הַזֶּה מִימֵי הַשֹּׁפְטִים אֲשֶׁר שָׁפְטוּ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכֹל יְמֵי מַלְכֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּמַלְכֵי יְהוּדָה,” “a Pesach like this had not been done since the days of the Judges or in all of the days of the Kings of Israel or Yehuda,” Rashi (Source 26) points out that the split in the kingdom had resulted in most of the Jews’ having brought what amounted to Avodah Zarah for many years. Yoshiyahu was the first leader of a unified Jewish nation since the days of the judges. Again, this is a time of national renewal represented by a Pesach, but it is also a reminder that the Pesach ritual itself was more often neglected than performed. Still, the Tanach’s claim that this was the first Pesach since the days of the judges is undermined by the fact that, as we saw, there was a Pesach 100 years earlier in the days of Chizkiyahu. Radak (Source 24) offers several resolutions to this conflict, including that, as we saw, Chizkiyahu’s Pesach was mocked or dismissed altogether by many, while others ate the Pesach in a state of impurity. Yoshiyahu’s Pesach, on the other hand, was a more authentic symbol of national rebirth.

This is some of what we developed at the shiur. ואידך, זיל גמור. May our own Pesach observance mirror what Rav Hirsch describes and allow us to feel a true sense of personal and national renewal each year. Chag Sameach to all.

This entry was posted in Holidays, Jewish History, Nach, Pesach. Bookmark the permalink.

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