“On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves, each man, a lamb for each father’s house, a lamb for the household.” (Shemos/Exodus 12:3) This designation of an animal as the paschal lamb occurred four days prior to its slaughter on the fourteenth of Nissan. Why? Mechilta (1) explains that the Jewish nation was immersed in Egyptian idolatry, a practice that deified the lamb. Since the Torah counterbalances idolatry to the aggregate of the mitzvos (Divine commands), G-d underlying message was, “Remove yourselves from idolatry and attach yourselves to mitzvos.”
That generation had a unique command: take the lamb four days in advance; through this active rejection of Egyptian idolatry you will succeed in purging it from your essence. But at this point in the timeline, G-d had already pummeled the Egyptian nation with nine crippling plagues, so overwhelming that had G-d not hardened Pharaoh’s heart the Jews would have been freed months earlier. How could any Jew still have any allegiance to a pagan god? (In retrospect, they obviously did not, because they did fulfill the Divine will and slaughter the lambs…and if they had maintained such a loyalty, they simply would not have fulfilled the ultimate command of killing the lamb.) Ultimately, what was gained by these additional four days?
Chidushei HaLev (2) clarifies that while the miracles the Jewish Nation witnessed created an intellectual understanding and acceptance that G-d alone was the omnipotent Sovereign of the Universe, nevertheless, the constancy of their idolatrous practice and belief ingrained that system into the depths of their hearts such that mere miracles could not completely uproot it. Had they only been required to slaughter a lamb, their intellectual appreciation would have allowed them to perform the instantaneous rite, their deeply rooted emotional beliefs notwithstanding. But having to choose the lamb and keep it within the home for four days prior to the slaughter was such a rejection of the idolatrous past that it succeeded in purifying the heart from all remnants of the intellectually rejected paganism.
But if the power of habit and constancy were SO strong that nearly a year of spectacularly nature-defying plagues did not completely remove it, how did a mere four days succeed in its uprooting? Chidushei HaLev concludes that an action personally taken is immensely more powerful than a fantastic miracle that was merely witnessed. Miracles may overwhelm, and ultimately convince, the intellect, but an action personally taken is tethered to the emotions rooted deep in the heart, so its impact is immensely more profound.
How often do we struggle to find the meaning or personal relevance in a mitzvah, while pondering that if only G-d would reveal himself in some spectacular, super-natural demonstration of omnipotence it would be so much easier to believe in Him? Indeed, we need G-d Himself, creator of the human psyche, to teach us the fallacy of that argument, to remind us that mitzvos are not rituals, but opportunities for personal growth, vehicles for investing ourselves in a personal relationship with the Divine. They must be studied and understood to offer meaning and avoid ritualization, but they must be performed and fulfilled to be effective.
Have a Good Shabbos!
(1) Mechilta is one of four volumes of Halachic Medrash, anthologies of Rabbinic comments on the legal sections of the Five Books of Moses that focus on the narrative (non-legal) portions of the Torah text as well; Mechilta comments on the Book of Exodus
(2) the ethical discourses of Rabbi Alter Henach Leibowitz, Rosh Yeshiva/Dean of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, New York
Mazel Tov to Kollel alumnus Rabbi and Mrs. Elly Broch on the birth this week of twins (a boy and a girl)!
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