The First Pesach

As a writer discussing Pesach/Passover, I am tempted to assume that we are all familiar with the events of the initial Passover. However, we know what happens when we assume, so, let us recall briefly the events that took place in Egypt some 3,500 years ago.

Back in the time of Avraham, Hashem had made a promise to the Patriarch. Well, let’s say there was a prophecy and a promise. The prophecy was that Avraham’s descendants would go into captivity. The parallel promise was that his offspring would not remain slaves forever—they would be delivered from that state, and brought back to the Land of Promise, where they would live as free people.

It is important to start with this Promise, for we must recognize that, throughout the generations of living in Egypt, this promise served as the bright light that kept hope alive as the Hebrews toiled for their task masters. For hundreds of years, the whispered words, “Remember the promise to Avraham”, would restore a failing heart, trembling knees, and hands that were at the end of their strength.

In essence, Avraham had already seen the Exodus, even before Ya’akov and his family went to live in Mitzrayim/Egypt, and had passed on the promise of hope to his heirs.

We now can skip past the story of Yosef and his brothers, who moved into Mitzrayim/Egypt, established families and professions, and became a successful part of Egyptian culture. For the sake of our brief review, we quickly come to the time when a king rose to power in Mitzrayim who did not recognize the blessing Yosef had been to Egypt hundreds of years before.

This change in status with the Egyptian monarchy was likely due to the fact that Egypt had gone through a period of being overrun by a Canaanite people called the Hyksos. When the native Egyptians took back control of their land, they perceived the Hebrews as presenting a similar threat to their national security and identity. What was to prevent the Hebrews from also taking over the nation through influence, possibly even direct attack, and then setting their own rules, as the Hyksos had (Shemot/Exodus 1:10)?

As a result of the Egyptian fear of the Hebrew people in their midst, a program of slavery was imposed upon the sons of Jacob. This was supposed to keep their population in check and disenfranchise the Hebrews, reinforcing the idea that Hebrews were “only slaves”, with no authority or power in Mitzrayim.

But Hashem did not forget his people. As always, he remembered the Promise that had been made to the fathers. In this case, he heard the cries of his people, and raised up a deliverer—a Messiah. In this case, it was Moshe who was born into an unlikely situation, and raised in an even more unlikely situation—a slave who became the grandson of Pharaoh. As Moshe grew, he learned to identify with his Hebrew kin, even as he absorbed the knowledge of the Egyptians.

Finally, the time came for the Promise to be kept—to free Israel from slavery. Moshe made an unusual request of Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (Shemot/Exodus 7:16).

It is often overlooked that Moshe had in mind a specific festival to Hashem, that the Hebrews intended to go and celebrate in the wilderness. Was this actually an early form of Spring lambing festival that was already in place, even prior to the time of the captivity? It would seem so. But, when Pharaoh refused to allow the Hebrews to go out and celebrate this festival, the significance of the event became transformed. This year, the Pesach would cease to celebrate the increase of the flocks in the field—forever after, it would become a festival of freedom and joy, remembering that Hashem led his people out of Mitzrayim as a shepherd leads his sheep, protecting the Hebrews even as the wolves of Mitzrayim nipped at their heels.

The events of that historic Pesach night, including the sacrifice of the Pesach lamb, and the placement of lamb’s blood on the doorposts, can be found in Shemot/Exodus 12. We will be returning to this chapter later in our study of the Pesach seder. Meanwhile, I encourage you to practice your “you are there” meditation technique by reading this chapter, and putting yourself into the situation described there. What can you see in the story that you’ve never noticed before?

As we look forward to our next installment of Pesach studies, let us close out with the commandment to memorialize the Pesach:

“You are to observe this as a law, you and your descendants forever. When you come to the land which Adonai will give you, as he has promised, you are to observe this ceremony. When your children ask you, ?What do you mean by this ceremony?’ say, ?It is the sacrifice of Adonai’s Pesach [Passover], because [Adonai] passed over the houses of the people of Isra’el in Egypt, when he killed the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ ”

The people of Isra’el bowed their heads and worshipped

(Exodus 12:24-27)

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