Parshat Bo תשפא
This week’s portion, בא – Bo, describes Hashem’s last three plagues brought on the Egyptians and the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. The tenth plague, מכת בכורות, the killing of the first born, was the straw that broke the camel’s back and resulted in the Egyptians chasing the Jews out. At exactly mid-night on the 15th of Nissan, Hashem Himself killed each Egyptian first born, and – passed over – פסח – the Jewish houses that had the blood on the doorposts and lintel, and spared the first born inside.
We read about it in the Passover Haggadah.
פֶּסַח שֶׁהָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ אוֹכְלִים בִּזְמַן שֶׁבֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ הָיָה קַיָּם עַל שׁוּם מָה? עַל שׁוּם שֶׁפָּסַח הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל בָּתֵּי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בְּמִצְרַיִם
The Pascal offering that our forefathers ate when the Holy Temple stood, what is behind it? It is because Hashem passed over (פסח) the houses of our forefathers in Egypt.
The name of the Pascal sacrifice -קרבן פסח and the name of the holiday – Pesach, are based on this event.
This raises a question. Pesach’s theme is freedom, celebrating the Jewish people leaving Egypt after 210 years, 130 of which were mostly laden with difficult back-breaking slavery. This “passing over” seems to be a minor occurrence compared to the amazing miracles that Hashem brought upon the Egyptians to release the Jews from their enslavement. Why isn’t the name of the holiday “Exodus”?
We read in the Torah (Exodus 12:21):
(כא) וַיִּקְרָא משֶׁה לְכָל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם וְשַׁחֲטוּ הַפָּסַח:
21) And Moshe called all the elders of Israel and told them, “Draw forth or buy for yourselves one of the flock for your families, and slaughter the pesach offering.”
The word משכו – “draw forth” seems superfluous. Why not just say, “Take for yourselves …?” Answering this peculiarity, the Midrash explains that this was a directive to draw yourselves away from idol worship and the Egyptian ways that you have adopted. After being in Egypt for so many years, the Jewish people had accepted the Egyptian way of life including worshiping their gods. Before they could leave Egypt, they would have to purge themselves of the Egyptian gods and accept Hashem as the only G-d. This was a very difficult task, especially on the 15th of Nissan.
The Egyptians of old were the most advanced society of the time. To this day, historians and scientists cannot figure out how they built the Pyramids. The catacombs where the Egyptian kings and their families were buried were cut into stone deep in the earth. Each room and passageway was cut perfectly square and level. The bodies were mummified and placed in wooden coffins with pictures and writing on them that, when discovered 3,000 years later, were as perfect as the day they were placed in the ground. No termites ate through the coffins, and the mummies were intact.
The Egyptians also knew how to extract the maximum pleasure out of life. They were extremely immoral and stopped at nothing for the opportunity to experience a pleasure. They would steal, plunder, subjugate, and force any person weaker than they, sadistically using them for their pleasure. They mercilessly slaughtered Jewish babies to bathe in their blood.
There was one problem. The world is given to higher powers, forces beyond their control. How would the Egyptians pacify the “gods” not to disturb them from enjoying their pleasure?
To resolve this problem, they worshiped what they considered to be the most powerful sign of the Zodiac, Aries (Ram in Greek). This, the first sign of the Zodiac, reigned in the spring from March 21st to April 19th, when life and growth begin in the plant and animal worlds. Worshipping this sign would influence it to bestow its blessing upon them.
It is reported in the Book of Egyptian rituals that the Egyptians counted their months from full moon to full moon. The 15th of Nissan began an entire month of celebrations, as it was the beginning of the Egyptian new year and the month of the Ram.
Earlier, when Pharaoh suggested that the Jewish people remain and serve Hashem right there in Egypt, Moshe responded, “Do you think that we can sacrifice the god of Egypt in Egypt and the people won’t stone us?” Yet, now, Moshe commanded the Jewish people to separate a lamb on the 10th day of the month of Nissan for the Pascal offering and to tie it to their bed posts and inspect it every day for a blemish until the 14th of the month when they would slaughter and roast it. This was an especially sensitive time to be taking a lamb from the flock. The Egyptians asked them, “What are you going to do with that lamb?” The Jews answered, “In four days we are going to slaughter and roast it. Then, we are going to put its blood on the doorposts and lintel of our houses, and that night, when Hashem kills your first born, because of the blood on our doorposts He will skip over our houses and spare our first born!” Even though the Jewish people knew that they were putting themselves in danger by taking the “god” of the Egyptians for slaughter, they put their trust in Hashem Who commanded them and did so anyway. Indeed, the Egyptians gathered to kill the Jewish people with the lambs tied to their bedposts, but in the merit of their performing Hashem’s commandment, He miraculously saved them.
That year, the 10th of Nissan was Shabbat, and, therefore, to remember this miracle, we call the Shabbat before Pesach, “שבת הגדול” The Great Shabbat.
That was the easy part. The more difficult challenge was to see the lamb as a plain lamb, not as a “god,” and to remove any vestiges of idol worship from their minds and hearts. The pervasive and intimidating Egyptian culture that they had lived in for so many years made this very difficult. And they had to do in the midst of the month of Nissan, the month of the ram, the month in which the lamb was hallowed. The 10th of the month was when the Egyptians were gearing up for a whole month of festivities worshipping their Ram god. Despite the great difficulty, the Jews slaughtered the lamb; but now came the hard part. What was their plan as to how to rid themselves of all the inappropriate feelings that the lamb was a god? How would they uproot these notions from their psyche, leaving them pure to serve Hashem?
By slaughtering it! They had to just do it! That was the trick. When they slaughtered the lamb, they also slaughtered all the feelings and thoughts that it was a god. The magnitude of the mitzvah had such a penetrating and profound effect on them that it completely obliterated all of the inappropriate feelings from within them. This is the power of a Mitzvah. A mitzvah is a spiritual force, a “power pill” that infuses a person with holiness and drives out the evil within us. Here, because of the rule – לפום צערא אגרא – The more difficult the mitzvah, the greater the reward, the Jewish people succeeded in creating such a formidable holy spirit inside of themselves that it killed all of their accumulated unacceptable notions.
The act of slaughtering the lamb for the sake of the mitzvah, as a tool to eliminate the feelings of idol worship, serves as the model for one of the most fundamental concepts in Judaism. This concept is most clearly expressed in the Sefer HaChinuch, written in the 13th century, and attributed to Rabbi Aharon Halevi. It is in the context of answering an obvious question about the Pascal offering that the Sefer Hachinuch reveals this concept.
The Sefer HaChinuch lists the Torah’s 613 commandments arranged according to the weekly Torah portion and discusses four aspects of every mitzvah: (1) the mitzvah’s definition and its sources in the Written and Oral Torah; (2) lessons that can be deduced from the mitzvah; (3) basic laws pertaining to the mitzvah’s observance, including the penalty for its violation; and (4) who is obligated to perform the mitzvah and when.
The Torah dedicates nine mitzvot to the Pascal offering, and as far as the lesson we learn from them, the Sefer HaChinuch writes (Commandment No. 5):
משרשי מצוה זו, כדי שיזכרו היהודים לעולם הניסים הגדולים שעשה להם השם יתברך ביציאת מצרים
The lesson we can learn from this is that the Jews should always remember the great miracles that Hashem did for them when they left Egypt.
After writing the same thing eight times in a row for each of the mitzvot that deal with the Pascal offering, the Sefer HaChinuch writes the following concerning Commandment 15 – “Do not to break a bone of the Pascal offering.”
משרשי המצוה, לזכור ניסי מצרים, כמו שכתבנו באחרות. וגם זה גזעו מן השורש הנזבר, שאין כבוד לבני מלכים ויועצי ארץ לגרר העצמות ולשברם ככלבים, לא יאות לעשות ככה כי אם לעניי העם הרעבים. ועל כן בתחלת בואנו להיות סגולת כל העמים ממלכת כהנים ועם קדוש, ובכל שנה ושנה באותו הזמן, ראוי לנו לעשות מעשים המראים בנו המעלה הגדולה שעלינו לה באותה שעה. ומתוך המעשה והדמיון שאנחנו עושין נקבע בנפשותינו הדבר לעולם
The lesson from this mitzvah is to remember the miracles of Egypt, as I wrote concerning the other such commandments. This shares the same source because it is not respectful for the king’s children or advisors to lick the bones and break them like dogs. Such a practice is acceptable only to the poorest and hungriest people of the nation. Therefore, as we began to serve in our role as the treasured of all nations, a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation, each year, at that time in the calendar, it is appropriate to act in a way that reflects the great level we reached at that time. And through the actions and thoughts that we have as we do those actions; we will establish these ideas in our souls forever.
Then, the Sefer HaChinuch asks the obvious question. Why do there need to be so many mitzvot about the same idea, viz, the exodus from Egypt? Wouldn’t one mitzvah suffice? Here is what he answers:
ועתה בני אם בינה שמעה זאת, והטה אזנך ושמע, אלמדך להועיל בתורה ובמצוות. דע כי האדם נפעל כפי פעולותיו, ולבו וכל מחשבותיו תמיד אחר מעשיו שהוא עושה בהם, אם טוב ואם רע, ואפילו רשע גמור בלבבו וכל יצר מחשבות לבו רק רע כל היום, אם יערה רוחו וישים השתדלותו ועסקו בהתמדה בתורה ובמצוות, ואפילו שלא לשם שמים, מיד ינטה אל הטוב, ובכח מעשיו ימית היצר הרע, כי אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות. ואפילו אם יהיה אדם צדיק גמור ולבבו ישר ותמים, חפץ בתורה ובמצות, אם אולי יעסק תמיד בדברים של דופי, כאילו תאמר דרך משל שהכריחו המלך ומינהו באומנות רעה, באמת אם כל עסקו תמיד כל היום באותו אומנות, ישוב לזמן מן הזמנים מצדקת לבו להיות רשע גמור, כי ידוע הדבר ואמת שכל אדם נפעל כפי פעולותיו, כמו שאמרנו:
And now my son, if you wish to understand, listen to this, and bend your ear to hear what I will teach you that will help you in Torah and Mitzvot. You must know that a person’s essence is affected by his actions, and his heart and all his thoughts follow the actions that he does- if good, good, if bad, bad. Even someone who has an evil heart and all his thoughts are about what evil he can do, if he will experience an awakening and spend his time consistently in Torah and Mitzvot, even not for the sake of Heaven, he will immediately turn himself into a good person, and with the power of his good actions he will kill the evil inclination within him. Because one’s heart is influenced by his actions. And even a completely righteous person with a straight and pure heart desiring only Torah and Mitzvot, if somehow, he would begin to occupy himself in lowly matters, say the king appointed him to a lowly job, if he is constantly involved with lowly matters, at some point he will change from someone with a righteous heart to a completely evil person. For it is known to be true, a person’s essence is affected by his actions.
The Sefer HaChinuch concludes by explaining that this is why there are so many mitzvot in the Torah.
ועל כן אמרו חכמים זכרונם לברכה [מכות דף ב”ג ע”ב] רצה המקום לזכות את ישראל; לפיכך הרבה להם תורה ומצות, כדי להתפיס בהן כל מחשבותינו ולהיות בהן כל עסקינו, להטיב לנו באחריתנו, כי מתוך הפעולות הטובות אנחנו נפעלים להיות טובים וזוכים לחיי עד.
This is why the Sages have said, “Hashem wanted to give merit to His children; therefore, he gave them many mitzvot and much Torah to learn.” This was to occupy our minds and actions with them constantly, to bestow goodness upon us in the end. Because through our good deeds our essence will be good and worthy of a place in the World to Come.
The Sefer HaChinuch teaches us an incredible lesson about ourselves. A person may think that he can do anything that he wishes and still remain a good person. This is not the case. On the other hand, a person who is unhappy with who he is has the power to change himself. All he need do is begin doing good things and he will see himself change into a good person. This sounds simplistic, but it is true.
A student approached his Rebbe with a problem. “Rebbe, I just don’t feel like putting my tefillin on in the morning. It doesn’t do anything for me spiritually.” The Rebbe responded, “Just put them on anyway, and soon you will feel the holiness of wearing them. The mitzvah itself will affect you.”
Our actions are the keyboard to our souls, the way we enter information into our souls is through our actions.
This is the principle that was at work in Egypt when the Jewish people brought the Pascal offering. Each difficult step in the process, (i) separating it from the flock, (ii) tying it to the bedpost, (iii) slaughtering it, (iv) putting the blood on the doorpost and lintel, (v) roasting it with the smell of roasted lamb wafting into the air for all the Egyptians to smell, and (vi) eating it – had its powerful influence on the Jewish people to remove the idol worship from within them. This purging that the Pascal offering achieved, freed the people from the idol worship within them and thus made them eligible to leave Egypt. They could not go out as idol worshippers.
This is Pascal offering’s lesson, and this is why Pesach is the name of the holiday. The name Pesach – reflecting that Hashem skipped over the houses of the Jewish people with the blood on the doorposts and lintel- captures the essence of the greatness that the Jewish people achieved by performing that act. The process of fulfilling that mitzvah routed the idol worship from within them and purified their souls for their service to Hashem. This was the source of their freedom.