The Torah in Parashat Yitro tells of the preparations for Ma’amad Har Sinai – the Revelation at Mount Sinai – which began with God summoning Moshe to the top of the mountain and delivering a message for him to relay to Benei Yisrael. God opens this prophecy by proclaiming, “You saw what I did to Egypt, and that I carried you on the wings of eagles and brought you to Me” (19:4).
A surprising reading of this verse appears in Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, which explains that God transported Benei Yisrael to the Land of Israel on the night of the Exodus. He carried them “on the wings of eagles” to the site of Beit Ha-mikdash, where they partook of the paschal sacrifice, and then He promptly brought them back to Egypt, from where they were then driven by Pharaoh.
This unusual reading of the verse points to the halakhic anomaly of the paschal sacrifice observed by Benei Yisrael on the night of the Exodus. Halakha strictly forbids slaughtering sacrifices anywhere outside the Beit Ha-mikdash (or outside the courtyard of the Mishkan, when it stood), and yet Benei Yisrael were commanded to observe this sacrificial ritual in Egypt. It seems, at least at first glance, that Targum Yonatan sought to resolve this question by depicting Benei Yisrael as miraculously “flying” to the site of the Temple in Jerusalem for the observance of the korban pesach.
We might, however, prefer an allegorical understanding of this passage. Many sources speak of the korban pesach observance on the night of the Exodus as a vitally important display of disengagement from the pagan culture of Egypt. Benei Yisrael were commanded to place the sacrificial blood on their doorposts, publicly announcing their devotion to God and their rejection of the Egyptians’ worship of cattle, after which they remained in their homes throughout the night partaking of the sacrifice. This seclusion marked their withdrawal from Egyptian paganism, in which they had been deeply entrenched over the course of their period of exile. Although they were in ancient Egypt, a society which many sources portray as especially decadent and immoral, and they had been steeped in that society’s mores, Benei Yisrael succeeded that night in breaking themselves away and creating oases of sanctity in their homes.
Targum Yonatan perhaps seeks to impress upon us that this experience was considered, on some level, as significant as the experience of offering a sacrifice in the Beit Ha-mikdash. As Benei Yisrael did the best they were capable of doing on that night, withdrawing from Egyptian culture and creating an aura of sanctity in their homes, this observance is worthy of being equated with the offering of sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. Nothing more is expected of us than what we are capable of at any given moment. And thus if the best Benei Yisrael could do is publicly withdraw from Egyptian paganism by performing the paschal ritual in Egypt, then they were credited with a great achievement; they did something as sacred as frequenting the Beit Ha-mikdash. The message being conveyed is that we are considered to have done something sacred anytime we do the best we can in any given circumstance. Even if we are figuratively distant from the Beit Ha-mikdash, far from the pristine spiritual state that we should ideally strive to reach, we are nevertheless deemed sacred if we achieve the most we can in “Egypt,” in our far less than ideal circumstances, each of us on his or her own level. Even modest achievements are sacred and significant if we exert maximum effort and do all we can under the circumstances.