The Celebration of the Passover

  • Rav Michael Hattin
Parashat Beha'alotekha continues the 'wilderness narratives' that characterize much of Sefer Bemidbar.  Though the section begins with a description of the golden menora and then goes on to relate the solemn investiture of the Levites into the service of the Mishkan, the remainder of its lengthy passages are devoted to the story of the journey towards the land of Canaan.  Thus, the people of Israel prepare the Paschal sacrifice as a necessary prerequisite to their undertaking of the transformative trek.  Moshe is then commanded to fashion trumpets of silver that will be needed to marshal the people and/or its leaders during the course of their peregrinations.  With this, the preparations of the people for their journey towards the land are finally completed, and they begin their march according to the auspicious signal provided by the lifting of the Divine cloud.
This week, we will consider some of the features of the Paschal sacrifice as it is celebrated by the people of Israel in the wilderness, and here augmented by the unusual 'Second Passover' that is mandated for those unable to participate in the initial rituals.  While we will be primarily concerned with the narrative of our parasha, it will be instructive for us to broaden the perspective by also reflecting upon other celebrations of the Passover as they are described in the Tanakh.
"God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year of the exodus from Egypt, saying: 'Let the people of Israel perform the Passover at its appointed time.  On the fourteenth day of this month towards evening you shall fulfill it at its appointed time, according to all of its statutes and laws you shall do it.'  Moshe spoke to the people of Israel to perform the Passover.  They performed the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month towards evening in the wilderness of Sinai, in accordance with all that God commanded Moshe" (Bemidbar 9:1-5).
It is instructive to consider the chronological framework of God's command.  Recall that according to the account in Shemot 12, the people left the land of Egypt on the fifteenth day of the 'first month,' on the morrow of their very first Paschal sacrifice.  After their final encounter with Pharaoh's minions at the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, they entered the wilderness of Shur, and proceeded to traverse its barren expanse until they encamped at the wilderness of Seen on the 'fifteenth day of the second month' (Shemot 16:1).  There, the manna began to fall but the people pressed onward, led by God's pillar of cloud to Refidim.  Attacked by Amalek but unbowed, they journeyed forward, finally arriving at their destination of the wilderness of Sinai, 'in the third month…on this very day' (Shemot 19:1).
At Sinai, the people encamped opposite the mount, and there they received God's Decalogue.  In the shadow of Sinai's craggy peaks they remained for the better part of a year, as the remaining narratives of Shemot and then those of Vayikra unfolded.  In fact, while it is in foreshadowing of taking leave of Sinai that Bemidbar opens with a census of the people 'on the first day of the second month in the second year of the exodus from Egypt' (Bemidbar 1:1), it is not until our parasha of Beha'alotekha that the people are bidden to break up camp and journey towards the Promised Land, 'on the twentieth day of the second month in the second year' of the Exodus from Egypt (Bemidbar 10:11).
In other words, while the central event in the people's lives, both thematically as well as temporally, was undoubtedly the encounter at Sinai, it is indeed significant that the bracketing for that experience was the offering of the Passover.  The people left Egypt with Sinai already in their sights (see Shemot 3:12), and they leave Sinai transfixed by a vision of the Promised Land.  In both instances, the journey is precipitated by the fulfillment of the Paschal sacrifice.  The implication of the above is clear.  While the Passover sacrifice is of primary importance in its own right as an expression of God's direct and concerned involvement in the process of tyranny's overthrow and the Jews' national birth, its secondary purpose is to act as a necessary preparatory step for experiencing and then internalizing pivotal moments of national destiny. 
The Exodus constituted a new and uncharted chapter in the spiritual history of the world, and the central role of the people of Israel in that emergent saga was set in motion by their observance of the Passover.  During that first Passover in Egypt, they ceased being individuals only, and instead became a nation dedicated to the fulfillment of God's laws, though their own desire to shoulder such noble responsibility may have been less than passionate at that time.  During the second Passover in the wilderness, they again stood on the brink of a historical turning point, now preparing to finally acquire a land and there establish their state to be ruled by God's righteous laws.  Again, it is the Passover sacrifice that triggers the dynamic, highlighting the centrality of recalling slavery and freedom, the value of the devotional deed, and the vital importance of acknowledging God's involvement while trusting in His saving power.  It is as if the spiritual reservoirs of the people must first be filled to the brim by the observance of the Pesach, before they can embark on an odyssey that will transform and elevate their national condition.
In the end, the people of Israel fall short of the great task, and in the aftermath of the Spies, next week's reading, are condemned to perish in the wilderness.  Their children, however, are spared from the decree, and are patiently raised under God's careful nurture to eventually enter the land.  It is indeed telling that when they finally do enter the land of Canaan by traversing the swollen spring waters of the Jordan River, one of their very first ritual acts as a people is to offer the Passover sacrifice, as described in Sefer Yehoshua 5:9-12.  Thus, while the internalization of the Passover's message may have been delayed, its momentum could not be stopped.  In the end, the people's triumphant entry into Canaan is conditioned by its observance.
The next Biblical reference to the Passover sacrifice is from the time of the righteous king of Judea known as Chizkiyahu, who reigned at Jerusalem in the eighth century BCE.  The Biblical texts describe his acts in glowing terms, for he cleansed the forlorn Temple precincts of idolatry, and renewed its service.  At the time, the Assyrians were ascendant, and Sancheriv their king extended his imperial rule all the way to the Egyptian border.  The so-called Ten Tribes of Israel, constituting the Northern Kingdom of Shomron, had already been exiled to the far eastern reaches of the Assyrian empire, and only remnants remained to eke out a living from the scorched earth.  Riding on the wave of religious enthusiasm that he himself had ushered in, Chizkiyahu initiated a celebration of the Passover rites in Jerusalem, drawing on its observance to effect spiritual renewal and teshuva: "The joy in Jerusalem was very great, for not since the days of Shelomo son of David had such (celebration) taken place…the people's prayer was heard in His holy habitation in the heavens" (Divrei HaYamim 2:30:26-27).
It was not long after that Chizkiyahu attempted to fan a regional insurrection against the tyranny of Assyrian rule by refusing to pay tribute.  The Assyrian hordes quickly descended upon the Judean state and in short order overran the towns and villages dotting the countryside, and then arrayed their siege engines around the walls of Jerusalem.  While the inhabitants of the capital looked on from the ramparts with trepidation, Chizkiyahu strengthened their flagging spirits with the rousing words of Yishayahu the prophet.  In the end, the Assyrians were miraculously overthrown by "an angel of God who smote the Assyrian camp, 185,000 of them, for when they arose the next morning all of them were dead…" (Melakhim 2:19:35).
Significantly, in the words of Yishayahu, and later still in the traditions of the Sages, the victory over Assyria was cast in a messianic light, as if hoping against hope that the astonishing defeat of the tyrants might usher in the long-awaited ideal age of peace among men and rapprochement with God.  Here again, therefore, the Pesach observance served as the necessary preparation for the decisive moment about to unfold.
Later still, as the Judean state continued to tragically spiral downward into idolatry and immorality, the Babylonian war clouds began to gather on the horizon, in the 6th century BCE.  After a succession of two singularly wicked kings who ruled after Chizkiyahu, the young Yoshiyahu came to the throne.  This king, in the aftermath of the discovery of a "book of the Torah" in the Temple, unleashed a religious reformation the likes of which had not been seen since the "days of the Judges."  Seizing the moment, Yoshiyahu concluded a covenant between the people and God, calling upon them to abjure idolatry and to fulfill God's Torah with sincerity.  They responded to his overtures, and a great movement to destroy the idolatrous shrines and to sack their false priests and prophets was undertaken.
"The king commanded the people, saying: 'observe Passover to God your Lord, as it states in this book of the covenant.  A Passover like that one had not been celebrated since the days of the Judges who had judged Israel, and all the days of the kings of Israel and Judah…Yoshiyahu also obliterated the 'ovot' and 'yid'onim,' the 'terafim' and the 'gilulim' [names of idolatrous priests and rites], all of the abominations that had appeared in the land of Yehuda and Jerusalem he destroyed, to fulfill the words of the Torah…there was never a king before him who returned to God with all of his heart and soul and might to keep Moshe's Torah, nor was there one after him.  But God did not relent from His great anger against Yehuda…for He said: 'I will yet remove Yehuda from My sight just as I removed Yisrael…'" (Melakhim 2:23:24-27).
One more time, the Pesach observance acted as a catalyst for the unleashing of a spirit of change so overwhelming that it turned the tides sufficiently to at least delay the exile, if not to prevent it.  For the first time in the history of the Judean kings that followed Solomon, the country was entirely (but only briefly!) purged of idolatrous influences.
In the end, the Babylonians prevailed, the Temple was destroyed, and the people of Judea were exiled far from their land.  But God's promise of return and restoration, vouchsafed to the prophets who witnessed Jerusalem's doom, did come true, and some seventy years after the destruction, a remnant of the people returned.  Gathering around the ruins of Jerusalem, they attempted with limited success to reconstitute the Jewish state.  Though the Temple was re-established (in a vastly scaled-back form), the community was beset by internal divisions and external threats.  Many of the returnees had only a tenuous connection to their heritage and were reluctant to commit themselves to a life of Torah observance.  The text does note, though, that the former exiles celebrated the Pesach and rejoiced in its observance (Ezra 6:19-22). 
Immediately thereafter, the text describes the arrival of Ezra the Priest, direct descendent of Aharon, proficient scribe and inspiring religious figure.  He was later assisted by the eminently capable and politically astute Nechemiah, and it is these two individuals who prevented the dissolution of the nascent state, and together placed it upon a solid religious and political footing.  What is striking for our purposes is to note that, once more, the celebration of the Passover was directly linked to an ensuing pivotal event, the arrival of Ezra, that transformed the situation.
This theme of transformation thus emerges as one of Passover's most enduring qualities.  It is a ceremonial event so charged with meaning, that its timely and sincere performance can seemingly effect almost cosmic consequences.  But there is more.  In every single one of the above examples, the Pesach observance was followed by great disappointment.  The people who left Egypt worshipped the Golden Calf at Sinai, those that prepared to enter the land instead remained confined to the wilderness, the new generation that went in to Canaan soon succumbed to the polytheism of the Canaanites, the triumph of Chizkiyahu and the associated hopes of redemption were instead followed by the debacle of Menashe his wicked son, the reforms of Yoshiyahu were short lived and could not avert the exile from occurring, and Ezra and Nechemia continued to battle indifference, apathy and intermarriage long after the Temple had been rededicated through their efforts.
It therefore seems that the principle of the Pesach must be tempered by an important corollary.  Although remarkable religious experiences have the power to be life altering, their ultimate success in doing so will be a function of ongoing and mundane implementation.  The religious 'high' cannot be sustained indefinitely, and unless it is quickly translated into the more familiar language of our daily and largely unremarkable activities, its effects will sadly be transitory.  One of the Torah's overarching teachings, a foundation principle that emerges from the very substance and structure of its laws, is that genuine religious growth and development depend little upon singular moments of inspiration, and much upon translating those moments into hours, days and years of meaningful living.  Because so much of our lives are consumed with satisfying biological needs and attending to mundane pursuits, unless those very activities are inspired with consequential content by the addition of Godly instruction, the singular moments will never be enough to lift us out of the mire.  Passover and other charged observances like it typically happen but once a year; our task is to carry their profound message with us the rest of the time, in order to constantly sustain our faith and perpetually nurture our spiritual growth.