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The First Pesach Seder

The Pesach Seder is one of the most ubiquitous religious performances in all of Jewish life. It is a night or two (outside of Israel) of learning, centered around a festive holiday meal that we enjoy together with family and friends. The very first Pesach Seder, which took place in Egypt, is vividly described in this week’s Torah portion, Bo.

While we notice similarities between that first Seder and ours, including laws for preparing and eating the Pesach lamb, there are some glaring differences. For example, even were we to perform animal sacrifice today, we would not smear the blood of a lamb on our doorposts. Additionally, in Egypt, there was a requirement “… to eat the Passover lamb with their loins girded, shoes on their feet, and staff in their hand. The very act of eating the lamb had to be in haste.” (Exodus 12: 11)

 Now I don’t know about you, but at a certain point in the Seder, I loosen my belt and perhaps even take off my shoes. I certainly don’t have a staff in my hand although having one might be helpful to keep the children away from finding where the afikomen is hidden. When it comes to eating the meal, I can still hear the soft but firm voice of my mother, may she rest in peace. “Slow down, chew your food, and don’t eat like you haven’t seen food before!” My wife often prods me to move through the Seder narrative more quickly (“We can discuss that question during the meal”) precisely so we have time to enjoy eating the delicious meal she has spent hours preparing.  So how do we account for these differences between the first Seder in Egypt and every Seder thereafter?

Let us recall that by the time of the first Pesach Seder in Egypt, the Jews had already been living and thriving there for 210 years. They were not only numerous but distinct and prominent members of Egyptian society. In Deuteronomy 26:5, the Torah states “…and there he became a nation: great, strong and numerous.” Although segregated and permitted to live only in the area of Goshen, the Jews were loyal citizens, recognized as outstanding participants in, and valuable contributors to the broader Egyptian society.

No doubt immersion by Jews in the Egyptian society included participation in the Egyptian culture and lifestyle as well. Therein lay the danger. Our Midrashic literature tells us that, in fact, the Jewish people had sunk to the 49th level of spiritual impurity. Had they slipped one more wrung, their redemption would have been impossible.

Yet before the Jews could emerge from Egypt, they would have to demonstrate their collective and individual commitment to a new way of living. They would have to commit themselves to a life of reality, one that rejected all forms of idol worship while simultaneously embracing a life centered on following the dictates of the mind. No longer would their philosophy of life and its attendant activities center on satisfying human impulses, desires, and emotions. If they could make these two significant shifts in the way they approached life, their redemption from Egypt would come quickly, even unexpectedly, that is, in haste.

There were two fundamental positive commands the Jews had to fulfill that initial Seder night in Egypt. First, all uncircumcised males would have to undergo ritual circumcision before eating the Pesach lamb.  Circumcision serves as the eternal sign, “the sign of the holy covenant,” that the way of life for all the practitioners of this new religion, Judaism, would be regulated by the mind.  The subordination of every human instinct and emotion to the dictates of the mind is the underlying philosophy of life behind “brit milah,” ritual circumcision.  When Hashem commanded our father Avraham to perform “brit milah,” He said, “Walk before Me and be perfected.” (Genesis, 17:1)

Second, the lamb was one of the gods in the pantheon of the Egyptian religion. To demonstrate their complete rejection of the Egyptian culture and religion, the Jews were told to take a lamb, which was one of their prominent gods and keep it tied up in front of the Egyptians for four days. Then, they were told to slaughter it, dash some of its blood on the inside of their doorposts,  roast its flesh, gird their loins, put on their shoes, take their staff in hand, and consume the roasted lamb that night in haste. These last required steps demonstrated that even though the Jewish people had not yet been physically redeemed, philosophically and psychologically speaking, they had already left the Egyptian culture and society. All that remained was their actual physical departure.

Now we can understand some of the specific requirements to that first Seder in Egypt. Putting the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes was a physical demonstration that the people rejected the culture and religion of the Egyptians. Having a tight belt on their pants, shoes on their feet, staff in hand ready to leave all conveyed the sense of urgency, immediacy, and haste in their departure. God’s liberation and subsequent redemption would now come at any moment. While the Jews that first Seder night in Egypt had to be ready to leave on a moment’s notice, in their minds and their actions, they were already gone. In the verse, “I shall see the blood and I shall pass over you,” (Exodus 12:13) Rashi points out that God didn’t need to see the blood on the doorposts. What the verse is teaching us is that “God saw,” so to speak, the Jewish people involved in fulfilling His two commands. Now it was the appropriate time to redeem them. The requirement of eating a roasted lamb at every subsequent Seder was enough to convey to all future generations the concept of the suddenness in our redemption.

This new covenantal community, ready to emerge from Egypt, was to be based on a two-pronged approach to life, the combination of which remains unique in the world even today. First, the acceptance of an external, objective, physical reality demonstrated by the complete and total rejection of idol worship. Armed with the knowledge of how external reality works, people can make rational decisions about and use of their interaction with the physical world. Second, by harnessing the powerful internal forces of human nature, people can then live a life of the mind. Free of internal conflict, a person can live a life of peace and happiness. Individually and collectively as a nation life could then be fully directed to the service of God. It is in this service that man finds his ultimate fulfillment.

This transformation to a new, different way of living was not a simple task even after witnessing all that transpired in Egypt. According to one explanation by Rashi, only 1/5 of the Jewish population in Egypt were redeemed. That means 4/5 of the nation did not make it out. They died in Egypt still steeped and immersed in the Egyptian culture. The overwhelming majority of the Jewish people could not make the necessary philosophical and psychological break from the corrupting influence of Egyptian society.

As we read and study this week’s Torah portion, Bo, let us keep in mind that our prolonged life in the diaspora, living in America, subjects us to many of the same corrupting influences our ancestors faced in Egypt. Though they take different forms today, they subject us to social norms and values not part of our Jewish way of life. The harm is great. Assimilation by our Jewish brethren living in the United States is at an all-time high. As we study this week’s Torah portion, let us internalize the important lessons from that first Pesach Seder in Egypt that will help stem this devasting scourge to our people.

May Hashem give us the wisdom and courage to live in the diaspora while maintaining our Jewish values and unique way of life. And may Hashem bless and protect our new president, vice-president, and administration.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan