Passover & the Repudiation of Idolatry

By Moshe Sokolow
Friday, April 15, 2011

Asking questions is a trademark of the Passover seder. Prior to it, we can ask another question—this one having to do with a passage in the Haggadah about the second of the four sons:

What does the wicked [son] say? "What is this service to you?" To you—but not to him. Since he has excluded himself from the rule, he has committed heresy. Set his teeth on edge and tell him: "It is on account of what God did for me when I left Egypt." For me—but not for him; if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.

Our question: why does the Haggadah inflate this son's sin to the point of calling it heresy, and why exaggerate its consequences by suggesting that if he had been in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed? Surely all the Israelite slaves who were liberated with Moses weren't paragons of righteousness?

To understand what is involved here, we need to go back to the original paschal sacrifice on the eve of the liberation. In Exodus 12, the Israelites are instructed to take a sheep or goat for each household on the tenth day of the month of Nissan but to wait to sacrifice it until late in the afternoon of the fourteenth. The blood is to be smeared on the doorposts and lintels of the home, and the animal is to be roasted whole over an open fire and eaten during the night of the fifteenth without a single bone being broken.

What is the significance of these details? To the Egyptians, sheep were taboo, and their abuse would ordinarily entail punishment by death. Indeed, when Pharaoh offers the Israelites a deal—take a three-day furlough from enslavement, and celebrate your festival in Egypt itself instead of away from the city as Moses requested—Moses replies: "Could we slaughter a taboo [animal] of the Egyptians in their very sight without being stoned?" (8:22).

Once we appreciate this circumstance, the surfeit of detail becomes transparent. To hold a lamb for four days prior to its sacrifice was to advertise its fate and dare the Egyptians to intervene. The astrological sign of Nissan is Aries, a ram; slaughtering it on the fifteenth day, the acme of the lunar month, would make a mockery of its symbolism; publicly smearing the animal's blood, its life force, would only add insult to injury. Moreover, mandating that the lamb be roasted whole over an open flame—with its aroma permeating the atmosphere—insured that it could not be disguised, while requiring that the skeleton remain intact meant that it could not be disavowed.

Participation in the Passover sacrifice, then, was tantamount to an open repudiation of idolatry. An Israelite who jeopardized his life by undertaking this sacrifice was irreversibly committing himself to the will of God and flaunting his faith in the face of his Egyptian taskmasters. By contrast, an Israelite who declined to conduct the sacrifice, or who tried to fake his participation, would be signaling that his fear of the Egyptians outweighed his belief in God. Such an Israelite did not deserve to be redeemed.

Indeed, according to a midrashic tradition, fully four-fifths of the Israelites failed this test and did not merit the exodus. And here lies at least one plausible reason for the severity with which the Haggadah views the sentiment of the wicked son that the Passover service is "to you and not to him"; why "excluding himself from the rule" should be equated with heresy; and why performance of the service is viewed as a necessary prerequisite for redemption.

As studies have consistently shown, Passover is the foremost occasion for Jewish celebration during the entire year, surpassing even Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. One can only hope that in our time, even if in some vestigial fashion, attendance at a seder signals a willingness to identify oneself with the Jewish faith and the Jewish fate.

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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