Rabbi Yair Robinson
January 22nd, 2021
This week, the nightmare, the years of trauma, finally come to an end.
I am, of course, speaking about the text of Parashat bo, in which Israel finally goes free from Egypt after 430 years, after degradation and slavery and servitude, after ethnic cleansing and horror. Before they go forward, one last plague is wrought upon Egypt: the death of the firstborn. Israel is commanded to observe a ritual, a Pesach, where a lamb or sheep or goat is slaughtered, its blood painted on the doors to protect the households of Israel from the death and destruction that will come. And Moses, as he instructs Israel, also tells them that this ritual is not only for this one event. Rather, it is to be fulfilled forever, even after the People enters the Land promised them, even after many generations have passed. And, as if anticipating the confusion and resistance that would come from a generation that knew no oppression or slavery, Moses says, “and when your children ask, ‘what do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Pesach offering to the Eternal, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians but saved our houses.’”
It is noteworthy that this ritual is one we continue to keep to this day…sort of. We do not sacrifice any kind of animal. We certainly do not paint our doors in blood, and while our ancestors ate their lamb quickly, bechipazon, standing up with their staff in their hands, we tend not to use a south Philly stoop at our seders. The 18th century commentator Rabbi Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar notes that there is no difficulty for us here. One is a command for that generation to fulfill a particular ritual. The other is for their descendants and every generation to follow to observe the night in a different way. He writes in his commentary, the Or HaChayim, “I believe that the words לחק לך, ‘your law’ on the one hand, and ולבניך ‘and your children’ on the other hand, mean that the application of the Passover law is not identical for future generations. As for as you, i.e., the present generation is concerned, all the aforementioned details apply. As to לבניך עד עולם, ‘your children forever’, only certain details of the Passover in Egypt will apply.”
There is tremendous wisdom in this. The Torah is profoundly concerned with future generations not understanding the trauma of the captivity and exodus, and therefore not fully understanding and appreciating the Covenant forged at Sinai. Ever and again, we are taught to teach our children, to observe the ritual, to see ourselves as having gone out of Egypt, lest we forget our obligations, our promises, and find ourselves as a people suffering calamities again. But at the same time, there is a recognition that the specific challenges future generations will face will be different and require different responses; nevertheless, by recommitting to covenant through shared rituals and the reenactment of history, we can continue to respond to the challenges before us.
And this is true for us as well. It is easy, so easy, to assume history is always behind us, and to even marvel at the struggles of our ancestors as if they were somehow quaint and not relevant to our circumstances today. To remember, to observe the rituals, to see ourselves as having once been slaves in Egypt, is to constantly remind us that our covenant requires a vigilance, a commitment, and a determination to this world and its inhabitants, those created in God’s image. That commitment may have been made long ago by ancestors living their own experiences, but it is our renewal of those vows and recognition that they have power over us that keeps us to our sacred task, L’Taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, repairing the world for God’s sovereignty. May it be so. Amen.
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