Sacred cows, sacred lambs: The Exodus and liberation from idolatry
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
Along with the narrative of the Exodus, our Torah portion introduces the practices that would keep its memory alive throughout the generations, including the mitzvah to retell the Exodus every Passover. The mishna (Pesachim 10:4) famously teaches that the story of the Exodus told on the night of Pesach needs to be told as a trajectory from genus, disgrace, to shevach, praise, without clearly defining what that means. There are two opinions in the Talmud as to what these bookends are, both of which are incorporated into our text of the Haggadah. According to Shmuel, this refers to the journey from slavery to freedom, which seems to be the more intuitive approach. According to Rav, the obligation is to chart the spiritual evolution of the Jewish people — from idolatry to the worship of Hashem. This explains why, in the course of telling the story of leaving Egypt, we say: “Originally our ancestors were idolators.”
The focus on the struggle against idolatry as a key component of the story of the Exodus can actually be found in Tanach itself. The prophet Ezekiel (20:7) describes a prophetic campaign to the Jews while they were still slaves in Egypt. According to Ezekiel they were urged to “Cast ye away every man the detestable things of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt.” This description evokes a different image of the Jews in Egypt, beyond just their slavery. It describes the Jews having become intimately involved with the religious life of the Egyptians.
What led to this entanglement with idolatry? How did the children and grandchildren of Yaakov lose sight of their heritage? Perhaps there was a campaign of apostasy mounted by the Egyptians with the goal of wiping out the Jews by eradicating their identity and belief system, as is suggested by the Ritva (13th/14th century Spain). It may have been an internal process of assimilation, whereby the Jews gradually adopted the ways of the Egyptians. Or perhaps their entanglement with idolatry reflects a rejection of the heritage of the Patriarchs out of desperation born of slavery.
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As part of the process of redemption, the Jews needed to reject the idolatry of Egypt. The most powerful symbol of this was the Korban Pesach (Paschal lamb), which, as a number of medieval commentators explain, was a highly charged act in an Egypt that venerated the sheep as a divine symbol. By their willingness to publicly take and slaughter the lamb, and daub its blood on their doors, the Jews made a decisive and brave statement of their intent to strike out in a new theological direction.
The Meshech Chochmah (R Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, 19th/20th century Latvia) writes that this is a fundamental aspect of the Korban Pesach, and that, in fact, part of the process of national repentance for the sin of idolatry throughout the generations is the offering of the Korban Pesach. Hence, while the Jews may not have been formally obligated in Korban Pesach until they settled in Eretz Yisrael, two offerings of the Korban Pesach are described in the wilderness years: one in the year following the Exodus, and one led by Joshua at the end of the 40 years of wandering when they entered the Land. These special offerings were brought as a response to national episodes of apostasy of the Golden Calf in the first year and Ba’al Peor in the 40th. Similarly, the Bible emphasizes that when Kings Hezekiah and Josiah led national campaigns rejecting idolatry that they culminated in an offering of the Korban Pesach.
While we live in a world where formal idolatry is not a burning issue, the idea that part of our identity as Jews is being countercultural, of being able to critically examine and reject those messages that we receive that run contrary to the Torah, continues to be one of our great contemporary challenges. Reflecting at the Seder on the bravery of Jews through the ages who were able to reject the tide and uphold the values of the Torah is, as Rav taught, a fundamental goal of the Seder. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the rabbi of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.