Dvar Torah given at Ramah Darom Pesah Retreat, April 16, 2014
Shortly in Musaf, depending what siddur you’re using, we will read the following words:
וקרב פזורינו מבין הגיום ונפצותינו כנס מירכתי ארץ
Gather our scattered from among the nations and our Diaspora from the edges of the world
והביאנו לציון עירך ברנה ולירושלים בית מקדשך בשמחת עולם
and bring us with rejoicing to your city Zion and to Jerusalem and your temple with everlasting joy.
ושם נעשה לפנך את קרבנות חובותינו …
and there we will so before you our obligatory sacrifices
ואת מוסף יום חג המצות הזה נעשה ונקריב לפנך באהבה כמצות רצונך
and the musaf for this festival of matzahs, we will offer sacrifices before you with love according to your commandment and your will.
In the past two nights of sedarim, we have spent most of our time on retelling story of the Exodus from Egypt and hopefully have connected it to a time when all will be free. Our images of pesah are matzah and wine, karpas and maror. Not the walls of Jerusalem and the pascal sacrifice. We don’t tend to think of pesah as a pilgrimage holiday. But the ritual of the seder which we think of as established, is actually not how Jews mainly used to observe pesah at all. In musaf we are asking that we return to the time when the scattered Jewish population came to Jerusalem with their families, bringing their carefully chosen animal to the Temple to be sacrificed and then eaten for dinner.
So it’s interesting that the seder has hardly a mention of this, it’s much more focused on the story of the Exodus. If we look carefully the seder does make mention of the pesah sacrifice in korech. The sandwich we make that includes matzah and maror, but we are missing the sandwich’s main ingredient- the meat! And though we tell ourselves that this is a reminder of what happened in the Temple, we take care to not even roast anything that could be misconstrued as the passover offering. Korech serves as a reminder that there used to be a passover sacrifice, but it doesn’t conjure up images evoked by the musaf paragraph. Of everyone coming together, to lovingly fulfill the commandment to make a korban pesah (passover sacrifice).
A key text about the passover sacrifice that we won’t otherwise be reciting as part of our passover observance comes from the Talmud, Psachim 64b, which gives a lengthy description of the processing of the passover sacrifices for the entire. The Talmud says:
The pesah sacrifice was slaughtered in three shifts. The first shift came in, and they filled the courtyard. The shofar was blown with, tekiyah, teruah and tekiyah. Priests stand by in a line holding gold or silver vessels. The Israelites slaughtered their animal and the priest catches the blood which is passed from priest to priest until it is splashed on the alter. Those people go and the second and third shift come in. While this is happening, the hallel is being recited, and repeated two or three times, though Rabbi Yehuda says that in his day, they didn’t get much of the way through Hallel in the last shift as there were fewer people. The Talmud continues to describe how the meat was hung and flayed, etc.
The project manager in me likes the efficiency of it all. Everything works great, or seems to. Somehow, the whole nation of Israel travels to Jerusalem and their sacrifices are accomplished all in one day.
If you speak to anyone ahead of a large family gathering, it is rarely so stress free. Now imagine EVERYONE’s families getting together. Not only does the Talmud’s account run smoothly, but it totally glosses over the messiness that must accompany such an operation. Not just the bloodiness of it, but the interpersonal things that would make this complicated. The stresses of packing for a long, crowded journey. The anxiety of being out of our comfort zones. The way that being at that a reunion can push all of our buttons. None of this is described. Instead we read of a seamless operation.
And other rabbinic stories about the time of the Temple are also idealizations. For example:
There were ten miracles that happened for our ancestors in the time of the Temple:
- No woman miscarried from the stench
- The sacrificial meat never went rotten
- No fly was ever seen in the slaughterhouse
- The high priest never became impure on the eve of Yom Kippur
- The rains never put out the fires
- The winds didn’t disperse the pillar of smoke
- No omer offering was ever found to be impure not the showbread
- The temple was crowded with everyone standing, but when it became time to bow, there was always room.
- No one was ever bitten by a snake or scorpion in Jerusalem
- And no one ever said that they had no place to stay in Jerusalem. (Avot 5)
And speaking of those who left their homes elsewhere to make the long trip to Jerusalem, there are stories of the miracles which kept their homes safe, all the while their owners were journeying to and from Jerusalem.
Even if we don’t take these stories as face value, after they were written long after the Temple had been destroyed, they still give a sense of how those in the rabbinic period felt about the Temple times– quite fondly.
Only one year there wasn’t a Temple in Jerusalem anymore. How did the folks in the Diaspora hear about this? Did they know what became of the people they knew in Jerusalem? I wonder what that first pesah felt like without a pilgrimage. Was it disappointing? Was it a relief not to have to take a long journey and to observe pesah in the comfort of home? Did they still make a korech sandwich? Did they put meat in it even if it wasn’t sacrificed? For all that passover is about telling the story of our people, there are so many details that we don’t know and can’t know.
Once the Temple no longer stood, we are left with a sandwich without it’s main entree, and our focus shifts to other, more relatable aspects of the pesah story. But what is lost in this transition?
We’ve heard the narrative of leaving Egypt countless times, and we tell ourselves that in every generation we should see ourselves as if we have left Egypt, yet if we had really been there, we’d know what it’s like to spread the warm blood of an animal on our door frames. We’d know what it feels like to spend a night wondering who we know who would be dead by morning. We’d have had the experience of having a miracle being performed for us! We’d really know the fear of leaving the only land we’ve ever known and heading into the desert for an uncertain future.
We spend so much of our Jewish ritual time on telling stories. but our stories become simplified. They can’t capture the full experiences, we can’t take everything in. As a result, we don’t know much about the experience or details of the events and practices we recall.
The tefilah in the musaf for pesah describes a past where everyone was brought together, but it is looking forward to a future time. A future when we can all come together AND get along. When thinking to the future, we too ought not limit ourselves too much by realism.
Pesah is about seeing ourselves as redeemed. Imagining what could be if we are free of our cynicism or skepticism. For this week of Pesah, we can put all that aside and imagine freely.
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In each and every generation, a person must see herself as if she left Egypt. This pesah, let us leave aside our doubt and give ourselves a chance to envision what might be.