Friday, January 19, 2007

A Test Of Resolve (VaEra 5767)

Speak to the Children of Israel saying, 'On the tenth of this month, they shall take for themselves a lamb for each household, a lamb per home.’ (Shemot / Exodus 12:3)

This is, of course, the introduction to the commandment to bring the Paschal Lamb - the Korban Pesach. God told the Jewish people to take a lamb per family and to care for it for several days. After this, it would be slaughtered, its blood smeared on the doorposts of the house, and its meat eaten in celebration of the first ever Seder.

The detail that the lamb had to be taken on the tenth of Nissan, four days prior to its slaughter was unique to the Pesach observed in Egypt. (There is an entire chapter of the Talmud that addresses the differences between the Pesach in Egypt and all the celebrations that followed in later years). As Rashi comments:

For the Egypt-Pesach, take it on the tenth, although for the future, this will not apply.

To understand this, we must appreciate the nature of the demand that God made upon them. The lamb was the god of the Egyptians, their oppressors for centuries. God, as an expression of His control over and annihilation of Egypt, was about to demonstrate the powerlessness of the Egyptian god. Every Jew, previously a slave, would take an Egyptian god and slaughter it before his powerless ex-master.

But this was not to be performed in secret, but as publicly as possible. The Jews had to demonstrate their trust in God to care for them in the face of adversity. They needed to show that they were ready to do God's bidding and risk their very lives in the faces of the oppressors by misusing their gods. Every Egyptian would know what his slave was about to do, but was powerless to act.

We see this further demonstrated in another rule regarding the Korban Pesach. The Torah requires that it be roasted whole and not cooked in any other way. The Abarbanel (a Spanish 15th century commentator) comments that roast meat gives off the strongest odour - it spreads all around the neighbourhood. Just try to have a barbecue without the whole street knowing! The Jews had to be prepared to spread the word that they were cooking the Egyptian god. If they had the gumption to go through with this, then they were indeed ready for exodus. It was expected that these experiences would inculcate the strength of character to enable the Jewish people to withstand the difficult journey that lay ahead, with all the challenges to their faith it would entail.

At a deeper level, it seems that the purpose of the challenge of taking the lamb was not simply for them to take revenge on their oppressors and their beliefs. The lamb symbolised the fatalism of the Egyptians; they believed in a world devoid of free choice, with everything predetermined and beyond their control. The introduction of the one God into their lives involved the elimination of the symbol of their core belief – the lamb. Tying it up and controlling it in the face of those who believed its message, then smearing its blood on the doorpost and eating its carcass was a potent way to help the Jews through any Egyptian beliefs that they may have adopted.

Then, at midnight, on the 15th of the month symbolised by the lamb (Aries), when the sign was at its peak, God could strike Egypt and the Jews would properly understand where their allegiances would lie.

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