Pesach: Preparing to Eat

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Twice a year, on Yom Kippur and at the Pesach seder, we conclude with the prayer L’shanna haba’ah b’Yerushalayim. It is specifically on these two days when the loss of the Temple is most felt that we express our yearning for Yerushalayim. Yom Kippur centres around the elaborate service in the Temple, one that we re-enact to this day through our Yom Kippur Mussaf davening. With the destruction of the Temple and the inability to bring the necessary korbanot there was even concern that the Jewish people would no longer be able to attain atonement for their sins. It was Rabbi Akiva, the eternal optimist of the Jewish people, who assured the people that "Blessed is Israel: Who purifies you? Our Father in heaven" (Yoma 85b). Yet that purity is nonetheless diminished without a Beit HaMikdash. 

Pesach has also been radically transformed. Without a rebuilt Jerusalem we can no longer partake of the paschal lamb, not only the highlight of the seder, but arguably the most important mitzvah in all of Judaism. By defying the Egyptians and slaughtering the most revered animal of ancient Egypt, we demonstrated our willingness to stand alone in the service of G-d despite the enmity of the nations of the world. It was the blood of the korban defiantly put on our doorposts that literally allowed the Jewish people to be saved, while their former Egyptian masters perished by the thousands. 

Along with brit milah, the korban pesach is the only positive mitzvah whose non-performance carries with it the penalty of karet, excision from the destiny of the Jewish people. Our seder, as joyous as it may be, is a pale reflection of the seder as it was meant to be. Instead of barbecued lamb chops we make do with lowly, tasteless matza. We thus begin our seder lamenting that "Ha lachma aniyah, this is the bread of affliction: this year we are slaves, next year we shall be free: this year we are in exile, next year we shall be in Jerusalem". 

Even our belated invitation for "all who are hungry (to) come and eat" reflects the effects of the destruction. While today we may invite anyone to fully participate at our seder at any time, this was not always so. One of the unique laws regarding the korban pesach is that it may only be eaten lemiunav—by those who, prior to the slaughter, were designated to eat from that particular animal. One could not invite a stranger in shul to partake of the korban pesach; one had to arrange in advance to eat from a designated korban

This by-prior-invitation only policy seems quite strange. It seemingly violates our basic values of hospitality, the welcoming of the hungry, precisely on the holiday when we most emphasize the coming together of the Jewish people. Why can't we, at the last moment, invite someone with no place to eat to join us, as we celebrate G-d's redemption of His people? Why bar him from the essence of the celebration?  

Throughout the Exodus the Jewish people had been passive, doing nothing to warrant redemption. However, Judaism is not a spectator sport and the Jewish people had to actively do something to merit redemption. Thus, two weeks before Pesach, Moshe told the people that four days before the upcoming Exodus they were to take the Egyptian god, slaughter it and place its blood on their doorposts. Becoming part of the Jewish nation means taking some initiative. The Jew who would rely on others could not fully participate in the seder. One cannot just show up at a seder and expect it to have any meaning. Such an approach will get you some tasteless matza, but will not allow you to fully participate and enjoy the beauty of Jewish life. 

The Pesach seder is perhaps the most widely observed Jewish ritual. However, even more significant than the seder itself are the preparations we make for the seder (and I am not referring to the cleaning, important as that may be). We must prepare ourselves spiritually, intellectually and emotionally in order for the seder to properly inspire us. 

All things important are meaningful only if we are properly prepared for them. The greater the importance, the greater the preparation needed. There is no holiday that requires as much preparation as Pesach; there is no holiday as important as Pesach, the time to celebrate and reflect on the founding holiday of the Jewish nation.