Their Most Cherished Possession
When the time for the actual departure from Egypt arrived, the morning after the first Pesach celebration in Egypt, the Torah tells us, “The Egyptians took hold of the people to hasten to send them out of the land…The people picked up their dough when it was not leavened, their leftovers bound in the garments on their shoulders.” (Shemot 12:33-34) Yet just a few verses later we read, “And also a great mixed multitude went up with them, and flocks and cattle, and very much livestock.” (Shemot 12:38)
Many questions should be asked on these verses but one basic and simple yet glaring question stands out. It is so basic and simple that we overlook it but it is the question that our great sage, Rashi asks. “Why, if the people had so much cattle, did they carry their unbaked dough and leftovers from the night before on their shoulders?” In his commentary on the word “leftovers,” Rashi tells us, “This term refers specifically to matzah and morror.” Rashi’s answer to this question is, “The people cherished the mitzvah.” How do we understand Rashi? What idea is he pointing out to us?
The Jewish people had lived in Egypt for 210 years. No doubt to the extent the Jews were allowed, they were assimilated into the Egyptian culture and society, similar, perhaps, to our living in the United States. When the command for the first Pesach preparations were given by Moshe and Aaron to the people two weeks earlier, did they comply? From another Rashi comment, on the word “chamushim,” Shemot, 13:18, he tells us that “one in five people from the Jewish nation left Egypt. Four out of five died there during the three days of darkness.” That is, only 20% of those enslaved actually walked out of Egypt on the first day of Pesach. What happened to the other 40% of the people?
As part of the preparations for Pesach, the Jews in Egypt were told to put the blood of the Pesach lamb on their doorposts. God would see it and “pausach” “skip or passover” their houses. No harm would come to them. “The blood will be to you for a sign upon the houses where you will be and I will see the blood and skip over you.” (Shemot 12:13) Rashi comments here, “Everything is revealed in front of God. (He doesn’t need to look, besides God has no eyes.) But the Holy One Blessed is He, will give His eye to see that you are involved with my mitzvot, my commands, and I will skip over you.”
First of all we see from Rashi here, that the blood was on the inside of the houses. Second this command, as all commands of the Pesach sacrifice, matzah and morror, were for the Jews in Egypt not for God. These commands were designed to break the people’s identity with the Egyptian culture and philosophy of life. The Jewish people from then on were to live daily by a system of mitzvot. Their culture and philosophy would revolve around the study and practice of intelligent rules and principles that come directly from the Creator of the universe, the same Creator of the laws of physics. Just as all people must adhere to them in order to have a successful physical life, so too the Jewish people must embrace the commands of the Creator to achieve human success and perfection in the ethical and philosophic realms.
So why did those who left Egypt choose to carry their dough and leftover matzah and morror on their shoulders instead of having their cattle carry it for them? A person often carries by hand his most valuable and prized possessions. They are never out of sight or reach. As great as the new wealth must have been to these formerly poor slaves, nevertheless they realized that it was their ability to embrace the concept of mitzvot and perform them over the previous two weeks and night that lead to their exodus from Egypt. That involvement, as Rashi puts it, created the unique relationship between them and the Creator of the universe. The involvement in mitzvot, on many different levels, guaranteed their redemption by the Creator. They became “a nation of mitzvot,” a people dedicated to studying and following the abstract principles of Jewish law. That new way of living, exemplified by the remnants of the matzah and morror, was their most cherished possession. They chose to personally carry those entities of mitzvah on their shoulders. As Rashi succinctly says, “They cherished the mitzvah.” He means they cherished the concept of mitzvah, any and every mitzvah. Just in this case the only ones they could physically take with them were the remnants of the matzah and morror from the previous night.
May Hashem grant all of us a meaningful Pesach Yom Tov and in the merit of our embracing the system of mitzvot, may Hashem continue to protect the nation of Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan