Pesach—Perpetual Remembrance

So far, we have been discussing the original celebration of Pesach. The Hebrew people were given a festival that had been known prior to their stay in Mitzrayim, but now it took on a completely new meaning. Rather than being about the normal rites of Spring, with the birthing of the new generation of lambs, the festival came to be associated with birthing the people of God out of the womb of Mitzrayim (Egypt).

So, the next item in our discussion is a question: “Why do we keep an annual remembrance?” After all, the event happened sooooo long go, and we are sooooo far removed from those people who were first delivered from slavery in Mitzrayim. How does this have anything to do with us today?

As we consider the events of the first deliverance, we find a command wrapped up in the midst of the story. In addition to simply commanding the Hebrews to do those things that were necessary for the rescue, itself, Hashem gave a commandment regarding an annual commemoration.

The Instruction

It turns out that the commandment to remember the Pesach is repeated numerous times in Scripture. The first time is right in the middle of the original instructions for protecting the Hebrews through the night of the final plague in Mitzrayim:

This will be a day for you to remember and celebrate as a festival to Adonai; from generation to generation you are to celebrate it by a perpetual regulation.

For seven days you are to eat matzah—on the first day remove the leaven from your houses. For whoever eats hametz [leavened bread] from the first to the seventh day is to be cut off from Isra’el. On the first and seventh days, you are to have an assembly set aside for God. On these days no work is to be done, except what each must do to prepare his food; you may do only that. You are to observe the festival of matzah, for on this very day I brought your divisions out of the land of Egypt. Therefore, you are to observe this day from generation to generation by a perpetual regulation. From the evening of the fourteenth day of the first month until the evening of the twenty-first day, you are to eat matzah.

During those seven days, no leaven is to be found in your houses. Whoever eats food with hametz (leaven) in it is to be cut off from the community of Isra’el—it doesn’t matter whether he is a foreigner or a citizen of the land. Eat nothing with hametz in it. Wherever you live, eat matzah.

(Shemot/Exodus 12:14-20)

This section shows us that the memorial is meant to go on forever, as an eternal memorial of the Pesach. It is a simple commandment for every Hebrew and every ger (Gentile convert) living among the Hebrews.

The next passage tells us the purpose for the memorial:

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, because he 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.

(Shemot/Exodus 12:24-27)

The Pesach celebration is designed to perpetuate the memory of national deliverance from one generation to the next. Once the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, they were to begin an annual memorial that would recall Hashem’s great deliverance from Egypt that allowed His people to enter into the Land that had been promised to Abraham.

A Personal Account

A special memory that is part of my own personal Pesach journey was provided by an Orthodox rabbi who joined my family for Pesach a number of years ago. I was nervous about his presence, distracted to the point of hesitating and losing my place as I tried to get the seder started. While it delighted me to have this rabbi participate in my seder, it scared me to death that he might correct me at every turn. It may surprise those who know me now, but I was terrified to open my mouth, for fear that I would say something wrong!

Then, in the midst of one particularly long pause, my rabbi friend leaned over and whispered in my ear… “Relax, it’s for the kids!”

Talk about a transformational moment! Suddenly, my entire demeanor changed. That simple reminder caused me to realize the seder was not a spectator event, but an opportunity to pass along a memory to the children who were present. Armed with that knowledge, I immediately raised my head out of the book (we’ll talk more about that in later posts), and started talking directly to the children who were present. That turned out to be one of the best Pesach celebrations I have ever hosted!

Many Mentions of the Mandate

There are several places in the Torah where Pesach is described as a permanent injunction that is to be kept throughout the existence of Israel. It is mentioned next in Shemot/Exodus 34, as one of the three “pilgrimage” festivals, and again in Vayikra/Leviticus 23 as one of the seven festivals of Adonai. There is also a brief description of the first commemorative Pesach celebration ever held, on the first anniversary of departing from Mitzrayim. This can be found in the first half-dozen verses at the beginning of Bamidbar/Numbers 9.

It is clear that the Pesach is meant to be celebrated forever, throughout all the generations of Israel. It should be an annual festival, performed each Spring. This is pretty obvious from a simple reading of the Torah texts. And yet, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

A Clear Instruction… and a Problem

The final Torah reference to the Pesach memorial contains a commandment regarding the festival that is a blessing, but also presents us with a problem If you look at Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:1-8, you will find a statement regarding the timing, practice and purpose of Pesach. Each Spring, we are to remember that Adonai took us out of Mitzrayim. We celebrate the festival by sacrificing a lamb “in the place where Adonai will choose to have his name live”. The first day of the festival is called “Passover”, which leads into a week-long festival called “the festival of matzah”. Because the beginning points of Pesach and Matzah are the same, the two holidays have always been intertwined, and referenced as synonyms for each other.

Now, all this seems pretty straightforward. So why did I introduce this description by saying it presents us with a problem? Because of that commandment about only performing sacrifices “in the place where Adonai will choose to have his name live”. That restriction means sacrifices to Hashem must be performed at the Temple in Jerusalem. One is not allowed to simply walk into the backyard, fire up a Weber grill, kill a lamb, toss it up on the grate, and call that “a Pesach sacrifice”! Such a practice is explicitly forbidden.

Can you guess why this little detail presents a problem for us today? Because there is no Temple! There have been two periods since the beginning of Israel’s existence as a nation when there was no Temple in Jerusalem—during the Babylonian captivity, and since the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century.

The Babylonian captivity began when Jerusalem was captured by the Babylonians in approximately 586 BCE. This was the first time the Temple was destroyed on Tisha b’Av (the ninth day of the month Av). Later, the Temple was re-established when the Jewish people returned to Judah, in approximately 500 BCE. This Temple was disappointing, in comparison to Solomon’s original, and was later upgraded by King Herod, who spent forty years restoring it to something comparable to the grandeur of Solomon’s Temple.

This restored Temple was subsequently destroyed by the Romans on Tisha b’Av in 70 CE. Since then, it has been impossible to perform the Levitical sacrifices that were prescribed as part of the Passover (or any other festival).

So, there have been two periods in history when there has been no standing Temple, meaning there have been two periods when Levitical sacrifices could not be offered. What do we do with that fact? Do we stop performing the festivals altogether? Some who have never lived with the Torah festivals as part of their lives will tell us that we are sinning by not performing sacrifices. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the Torah also explicitly tells us that sacrifices may only be performed at the Temple in Jerusalem, “in the place where Adonai will choose to have his name live”.

Those who believe the sacrifices, and therefore the festivals, have been permanently eliminated work from the assumption that the Temple has been permanently destroyed, never to be restored. That argument seems reasonable today because the Temple has been gone for thousands of years. However, we can’t forget the fact that there was an earlier time when the Temple was gone, with no evidence that it would ever be restored. During that time, discussion went on relating to how one should celebrate Pesach apart from a Temple sacrifice. Some of this discussion is recorded for us in the core section of the Talmud, in what is known as the Mishnah. As we begin to discuss the modern practice of the Passover seder, we will be going back to these Mishnah passages from time to time.

For now, let us close out with the recognition that we have a commandment to remember the Pesach through a memorial festival that will allow us to re-experience Adonai’s awesome deliverance from slavery. There have been times when we could celebrate the festival with an appropriate sacrifice, and other times when we could not. Our next article will talk about the return from the Babylonian captivity and some of the issues and solutions that were worked out while there.

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