The Four Tales of Pesach

Between the parshiot and haftarot of all the days of Pesach, we have the stories of four different historic celebrations of the holiday. The first is the parasha on the the first day. Moshe tells the people in Egypt of the command to offer the first korban pesach. Moshe ends the description by implying that Pesach will be an eternal festival in the Land of Israel, and that some day there would be children who would witness this sacrifice being performed and ask about it. Rashi states that the reaction of the People to Moshe’s announcement was immediate. The People bowed in joy at the prospect of both the coming redemption and the promise that they would have descendants who would one day commemorate the occasion.

We can only imagine the zeal that the People had the next year on Pesach, after witnessing the miraculous Exodus and the giving of the Torah and the building of the Mishkan, where they were now going to offer their korban pesach. They didn’t even know they would get the opportunity to have a Pesach, because Gd had told them only that it would be brought in Israel. Nonetheless, after the Mishkan had been dedicated, the people hungered for more, and Gd gave them a special command to bring it. Indeed, on Thursday of Pesach we will read how the people were so excited for Passover that even the people who were tamei and unable to offer the korban demanded a separate day to offer the sacrifice so that they could participate too, and Gd granted their request. A new holiday one month after Pesach was permanently added as a make-up date to serve forever as a testimony to their zeal.

But what happened the next year? The Torah is silent, but the Sifri states that it wasn’t offered. In the forty years the Jews spent wandering the desert, they only offered the Pesach this once. Why? Two reasons are given. First, the Pesach was meant to be offered only once the Jews were settled in the Land of Israel. Gd gave them a special decree that it be offered in the Mishkan in the desert that first year, but He did not do so again. Absent that decree, the Jews were not commanded to bring the offering. Second, the Jewish people never circumcised themselves in the desert, and someone whose children are not circumcised cannot offer the Pesach.

Rav Eliyahu Munk asks why the lack of circumcision should immediately stop the sacrifice, as in the early years in the desert, there must have been many people who did not yet have uncircumcised children. Surely they should have been able to bring Pesach offerings. But I think this misses the point. After the Sin of the Spies, Gd no longer desired to bring that generation close to Him. Letting go of circumcision showed the generation no longer desired that relationship either. Even the people who didn’t have male children couldn’t be said to be holding by their own mila either. Had the People been as enthusiastic about serving Gd as they had been in the two previous years, perhaps there would have been a dispensation to bring the sacrifice, but since Gd didn’t want them and they didn’t want Gd, they sunk into a thirty-eight year long funk. Even those who technically could have brought the offering were not given permission to do so.

Fast forward to the haftara and Yehoshua entering the land. Here, he is told Shuv Mol, “Return and circumcise.” The Talmud derives from the language that even the people circumcised before needed to be circumcised again. There were people who went out of Egypt as circumcised children, and they too needed circumcising. The Talmud explains that there are two parts to circumcision. When the Jews were circumcised in Egypt, they only did the first step and not the second. Now they are being told to complete the process. 

The Talmud never says why the second step of circumcision was only commanded after the former generation died off, but if there was a technical reason to redo the circumcision, there was certainly also an emotional reason for it. Gd tells Yehoshua “Today I removed from you the disgrace of Egypt.” For too long, the Jews had been mired in malaise. The spark that they had when they had run to circumcise themselves and celebrate Pesach in Egypt was long gone. Now it was time to uproot that disgrace and renew their relationship with Gd in vigor.

The fourth story of Pesach is from the very end of the First Temple period. King Yoshiahu finds a scroll of Torah in the Mikdash that portends destruction. Huldah the prophet confirms his suspicion. Jerusalem will fall to invaders, and the Mikdash will burn. The people will be exiled, and the place will be desolate. Yoshiahu’s only consolation would be that he would die before the city was to fall and would not witness the destruction.

Yoshiahu could have given into despair at this, but instead he decided that if the destruction is to come after he dies, then while he is alive, he will avert it. He moved to eradicate all the idolatry in the land and turn the People towards Gd. When he finished, he had them celebrate Pesach. Once again, it was time for the People to redeem themselves and shake off the disgrace of Egypt and awaken their hearts towards Gd.

The Navi testifies that there was never such a Passover celebration in all the days of the Kings of Judah.  Presumably, there had been Pesach celebrations before, but they were all flawed. Some of the people were inspired to bring their yearly Pesach, but others ran to private altars or just let the holiday pass them. The people had not come together to worship Gd with one mind, not since Shemuel five hundred years before. During the days of the Judges, the people were all divided and had no strong leaders who spoke to all of them. Shemuel became that leader.  He traveled the land, relating his teachings to all the people, and he awakened in them the kevannah to serve Gd wholeheartedly as one. After him, the people descended again into strife.  Now, at the very end of the period of Kings, Yoshiyahu was able to duplicate Shemuel’s feat. He cajoled and bullied the entire nation into joint repentance. The entire people assembled together in Jerusalem and vowed to uphold the Torah as they never had before. It was a rebirth of the nation, and it had a lasting effect even into the Exile. The Book of Ezekiel counts the Jubilee years from the date of this Pesach.

Each of of these Pesachs was special for a different reason. The Pesach in Egypt was the first Pesach, an imminent relief from slavery and the promise of a future. Yehoshua’s Pesach in Israel was the first Pesach in the Promised land, the fulfillment of the promised new beginning and the shaking off of a depression. Yoshiyahu was the coming back to a forgotten past, and the Pesach in the Desert was a gift desperately wanted, but unexpected. We read all these stories to show that Pesach is supposed to relate to every person. For every person, there is a different historic Pesach. For the person escaping abuse, there is the story of Pesach Mitzrayim. For the person trying to start a new life or finally seeing the promise of their work, there is the first Pesach in Israel. For the baal teshuva trying to connect with almost forgotten roots, there is the story of Yoshiayahu. The Pesach in the desert is for people who are doing well and want to further their connection to Gd and furthermore is the unexpected gift for those who did not know whether they would make it to this year. In each case, Pesach is not simply celebrating the redemption from Egypt. It is a time for everyone, no matter where they are in life, to remove the disgrace of Egypt from their hearts and renew their connection to Judaism. May we all take inspiration from these stories in Tanakh to make our own Pesachs and continue our people’s long journey out of Egypt.