Torah | In time of sacrifice, we see our mortality and plan for rebirthby rabbi jonathan jaffe
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Isaiah 43:21- 44:23
Over the past week, we have marked two beginnings in the Jewish calendar. On March 12, we observed Rosh Hodesh, the new month of Nissan. We will now watch the spring moon wax larger until it reaches its zenith. Under the light and radiance of the full moon, we will congregate in one another’s homes for the first night of Passover.
This week we also enter into Vayikra, or Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. The narrative comes to an abrupt pause, and we delve into the intricate steps of sacrifice in the Tabernacle. The Torah starts to read less like a novel and more like a cookbook, which is fitting, I guess, given the many recipes passed around this time of year for the best matzah ball soup or gefilte fish.
Yet there exists a deeper connection between Vayikra’s sacrificial rites and the upcoming Passover holiday. While Leviticus details the steps of each sacrifice, the first instruction to the Jewish people to offer such a sacrifice is found in the story of Passover. As God prepares to bring the final plague upon the Egyptian people, God first makes a request of the Israelites: They are to select a lamb, slaughter it, put its blood on their doorposts and eat it roasted over fire, with unleavened bread. They are not to leave any of the lamb until morning.
God’s request is somewhat audacious in that the Israelites are instructed to eternally ritualize an event that has not yet happened! As Exodus 12:17 reads, “You shall observe the feast of unleavened bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time.”
Through the first nine plagues, the Israelites have passively observed. Here, they are commanded to act. Before any change takes place, the Israelites must first demonstrate faith in God’s ability to deliver on such a promise. God does not act in a vacuum but rather only in active partnership with us. Ultimately, we need to take the first step.
Moreover, the Israelites are commanded to obligate their children and future generations to maintain this practice. The relationship is not between God and these particular Israelites, but rather with all Israelites for all time. Each of us delivers on this promise when we gather for the Passover seder.
Perhaps the most important element of this commandment is the instruction to eat the entire lamb before the morning. Consider what this meant: Even a small lamb would provide an amazing amount of meat to be consumed in a short time. The necessary effect is to bring people together to share in such a meal. In this way, the shankbone is not the only remnant of the Passover sacrifice present at your seder table. The fact that you are gathering at all stems from the commandment to eat the entire sacrifice before morning. And while we are all here to eat the sacrifice and unleavened bread, why not add four cups of wine, a few clumps of haroset and some gefilte fish as well? The more the merrier.
In his commentary to Vayikra, the 11th-century commentator Rashi points out an additional lesson. Rashi believes that the sacrifices carry the intent of forcing us to confront death on a regular basis. Through witnessing the animal’s death and the pouring of its blood, we are reminded of our own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. Thus the sacrifice provides a fitting complement to the Passover symbols of life and rebirth, such as the roasted egg. As the world awakens and thaws for the spring, we celebrate God’s power of regeneration and eternal creation. Yet at the same time, through the Passover sacrifice we are reminded that the cycle will continue downward and that our time in this world is finite.
We may choose to live our lives under the control and pressure of the many Pharoahs that surround us. Or we may cast off those limitations and live life to the fullest, recognizing that we get only one shot. Such is the magic of Passover — the Jewish holiday of rebirth, renewal and optimism. Chag sameach.
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