The Passover of the Wilderness

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


YCT and Michlelet Herzog's Yemei Iyun
on Bible and Jewish Thought

Tuesday, June 27, 2006 - Thursday, June 29, 2006

At Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School, Teaneck, NJ

For more information and/or to register,
please download the brochure at





The Passover of the Wilderness

By Rav Michael Hattin





            Last week's parasha of Naso concluded with the offerings of the tribal princes.  In celebration of the dedication of the Mishkan or Tabernacle, these twelve leaders each brought an identical gift: two silver bowls that contained fine flour as a meal offering, one small golden bowl of fragrant incense, and a series of sacrificial animals consisting of oxen, rams, sheep and goats.  These offerings were in addition to their more utilitarian gifts presented at that time, namely the six covered wagons and the twelve hitched oxen, to be used by the Levitical clans in fulfilling their task of transporting the structure of the Mishkan and its various fittings and appurtenances during the course of the journey to the land of Canaan.


            The theme of the Mishkan's completion and dedication is amplified by the opening of this week's Parashat Beha'alotekha, for it begins with an injunction directed to Aharon to kindle the golden candelabrum – the menora – of the Mishkan.  The command to the High Priest concludes with a fleeting but emphatic description that highlights the special process of its fashioning and Moshe's care in executing the work with precision:


Now this is the manner of the making of the menora – it was made out of beaten gold, from its largest to its smallest features it was beaten work; in exact accordance with the image that God showed Moshe, so did he fashion it (8:4).




            Now, the parasha revisits a previous discussion that had been interrupted by the matter of the Mishkan's dedication.  The Levites, who had earlier been counted and assigned by clan to their tasks, are officially invested in place of the firstborn.  Henceforth, it will be the Levites who will minister in the sacred precincts of the Mishkan and who will be responsible for its maintenance.  God had formerly sanctified Israel's firstborn at the time of the final plague in Egypt, for He had spared them from the Destroying Angel that struck down all of the firstborn in the land.  But now He had chosen the Levites in their place. 


            And while the text of the Torah itself is somewhat circumspect on the matter of the exchange, the early Rabbis insightfully linked the matter to the events of the golden calf.  There, the people of Israel succumbed to idolatry, worshipping their glittering fetish and offering sacrifice before it (Shemot 32:6), but the tribe of Levi remained true to Moshe and to God (Shemot 32:26).  The firstborn, who themselves had earlier ministered to God as Israel stood at Sinai and accepted the Torah (Shemot 24:5), were now firmly rejected for their presumed role in the villainy.




            Finally, the narrative redirects our focus to the book's primary point: the beginning of the journey towards the land.  Just as the celebration of the Passover inaugurated the dawn of redemption from servitude (Shemot 12), so too now the journey from Sinai to the Promised Land and from latent potential to actualization is introduced by the people's observance of the paschal rites:


God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year since their exodus from the land of Egypt, saying:  Let the people of Israel fulfill the Passover in its appointed time.  On the fourteenth day of this month at evening shall you fulfill it at its appointed time, in accordance with all of its statues and its laws you shall fulfill it.  Moshe spoke to the people of Israel to fulfill the Passover.  They fulfilled the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening in the wilderness of Sinai, in accordance with all that God commanded Moshe, just so did the people of Israel do (Bamidbar 9:1-5).


The vigilant student will notice of course that this narrative is chronologically out of place, for the events surrounding the wilderness celebration of the Pesach PRECEDED the census recorded at the opening of the book by at least two weeks!  Recall that the census was undertaken on "the first day of the SECOND month of the second year since their exodus from Egypt" (Bamidbar 1:1), while the observance of the Passover took place towards the middle of the FIRST month!  The actual breaking up of the camp and the commencement of the journey, on the other hand, took place on "the twentieth day of the second month of the second year since the exodus" (Bamidbar 10:1), when the Divine cloud lifted from the Mishkan and began to move towards the wilderness of Paran.  Chronologically, then, the events associated with the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, that took place over the course of approximately two months, are as follows: (1) the celebration of the Pesach (9:1-5), (2) the taking of the census (1:1-54), (3) the observance of the Passover rites for those that were unfit during the first month (9:6-14), and (4) the commencement of the journey towards the land (10:11-34).  The investiture of the Levites that we spoke of earlier, contingent as it was upon the census numbers, must therefore have happened before the observance of the Pesach.




            Why does the narrative, then, relate the episodes out of sequence?  Why didn't the book begin with the very first event of the second year since the Exodus, namely the Pesach observance?  From a structural perspective, we may surmise that the purpose of the Torah's jogging of the events is didactic, for it seeks to link the journey towards the land with the celebration of the Pesach.  The conscious evocation is that of the Exodus, for, as stated above, the people could only leave Egypt in the aftermath of the slaughter of the paschal lamb.  The emotional and spiritual work of liberating themselves from the corrosive effects of Egyptian bondage was initiated by the people of Israel with their readiness to observe the rites of the Passover.  In so doing, they "declared war," as it were, on Egyptian idolatry as well as their own spiritual apathy, readying themselves to accept God's word (in this connection, see my archived article on Parashat Bo, "The Blood Service of the Paschal Sacrifice").


            In a similar vein, preparing to now traverse the barren wilderness and reach the gates of the Promised Land, Israel again celebrates the Pesach, this time readying themselves to embrace a new dimension of their destiny.  In the aftermath of the Passover rites, they will leave behind the certainty of Sinai, now entering the foreboding wilderness on a journey of self-discovery and actualization.  While Sinai was about receiving God's laws and accepting them, Canaan is about observing them as a functioning nation.  In essence, the transition from the one to the other is accomplished through the vehicle of the Passover observance, for it, more than anything else, speaks of Israel's unique national calling.




            While this might be the straightforward understanding of the chronological anomaly, Rashi, basing himself on an earlier Rabbinic tradition, directs the discussion to a decidedly different conclusion:


"In the First Month" – the passage that is at the beginning of the book (of Bamidbar) was not actually communicated until Iyar (the second month).  This teaches us that events in the Torah are not necessarily related chronologically.  Why didn't the book begin with this section?  It is because it speaks disparagingly of Israel.  This is because the entire forty year period that the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they did not offer a single Passover sacrifice besides this one! (commentary to 9:1).


For Rashi, the mention of the Passover observance now, while seemingly complimenting Israel for their fidelity to God and to His instruction, is actually an understated critique.  This is because as fate would have it, the people of Israel did not celebrate the Passover again until the entry into the land of Canaan.  The events associated with the spies (mentioned in next week's reading) ultimately condemned Israel to almost forty years of wandering in the wilderness, and during that whole time the people of Israel did not perform the rites of the Passover at all.  In effect, then, Israel only observed the Pesach on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, on the eve of the exodus from Mount Sinai, and, almost forty years later, in the immediate aftermath of the traversing of the Yarden and the entry into the land (as reported in Sefer Yehoshua Chapter 5:10). 


            Bearing all of this in mind, and animated by a healthy dose of hindsight, Rashi therefore believes that for Sefer Bamidbar to have opened with the episode of the Pesach may have been chronologically more accurate but thematically more disconcerting.  Why open the book of Bamidbar so inauspiciously, with a reference to an event that calls to mind other less savory realities?  Of course, Rashi's underlying assumption is that the Passover was NOT observed by the people during the forty years of wilderness wandering.  He therefore feels that the emphatic mention of the celebration in our parasha is a veiled allusion to the fact that it was not practiced again during the entire duration of that generation's lifespan. 




            While the text itself cannot provide us with explicit support for Rashi's view, it does provide us with solid circumstantial evidence.  We know, for example, that the performance of the Pesach sacrifice depends upon the circumcision of the male supplicant.  Any male who is uncircumcised cannot offer the Passover sacrifice, as stated in Shemot 12:43-50.  We also know, from the description preserved in Sefer Yehoshua Chapter 5, that the people of Israel carried out a mass circumcision on the eve of their departure from Egypt but then neglected the rite entirely while they wandered in the wilderness.  It was only after they had safely crossed the Yarden and entered the land that they renewed the covenant of circumcision with another mass event and THEN offered the Pesach as discussed above.  It is therefore eminently reasonable to link the two seemingly unconnected episodes: as long as circumcision went unobserved, then the Paschal sacrifice went unobserved as well.  As soon as the rite of circumcision was renewed, then the people of Israel also fulfilled the Pesach!


            This association between the Paschal lamb and circumcision is itself more than cursory and ephemeral: both observances incorporate a pronounced blood element, both serve an identifying function that singles out the performer as a member of a larger communal or national grouping, both introduce the serious consequence of karet or spiritual excision for non-fulfillment, and both reinforce a conceptual connection to the land of Israel.  The setting for the Paschal lamb, notwithstanding the precedents of Egypt and Sinai, is actually the land of Israel while circumcision is introduced in the Torah as the special sign of the covenant between God and our ancestor Avraham, the covenant in which God promised the land to his descendents (see Bereishit 17:14).  It is therefore quite natural to assume that if circumcision is not being carried out, then the Paschal lamb is also not being offered.


            Rashi's interpretation, of course, not only alerts us to another reading of the text but to a profound moral principle as well.  Sometimes it is necessary to recount an episode that is unsettling, to mention a fact that is disparaging, or to indicate a reality that casts a person or a group in an unfavorable light.  But there is no need to revel in such disclosures!  If matters must sometimes be stated, even forcefully, concerning failure or fiasco, then at least let them not be gleefully trumpeted from the rooftops!  The Torah, after all, preserved the honor of Israel by burying the intimation of their downfall under a number of layers of implication and by positioning that story less prominently than the natural chronology would have dictated.  In fact, only the careful reader would have been able to "connect the dots" at all!  If this is true about how we relate to the nation of Israel, Rashi seems to be saying, then it must be true about relating to the members of that nation as well.


Shabbat Shalom