Have you started planning for Pesach yet? Are you cleaning? Cooking? Making a menu? Pulling your hair out?
If we were living in ancient Egypt at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus, we would be chilling right now. Really. We weren’t working for the Egyptians – they had given up on us a few months prior. We did not yet know if and when we were leaving. I honestly don’t know what they were doing. Maybe they were getting camel rides or tours of the pyramids.
We read this morning (from the second Torah) that the Jewish People were introduced to the holiday of Pesach only fourteen days before it took place. That means that Pesach preparation would not start until this upcoming Thursday, Rosh Chodesh Nissan. You probably think that those two weeks were crazy; frenetic activity, getting ready for the very first Pesach seder, and even more so, getting ready to leave Egypt. But I don’t think it was as busy as you imagine.
Were the Jewish People spending their time cleaning their homes from chameitz?
No. The average size of an Egyptian home in 2000 BCE was about the size of a two-car garage. They were far more economical with their food. Hardly anything went to waste. How long would it take you to clean an already fairly clean two-car garage? An hour? Maybe.
Were they cooking?
No. They were only eating one meal at home and the main course, the lamb, was prepared on the eve of Pesach.
Were they packing?
Not really. Most Egyptians in that era, even wealthy ones, had almost no furniture. Poor Egyptians did not use dishes. Eating utensils did not exist. (That’s what we have fingers for.) They typically had a mortar, a pestle, a pot, a pan, and a bowl for storing things.
In terms of clothing, kids under six, did not wear any clothing… The adults had one pair of clothing – which they were wearing. So, when the Jewish People left Egypt there were no U-hauls. It probably took them fifteen minutes to pack.
For those keeping track, we are up to hour and fifteen minutes of prep time.
Perhaps they were borrowing objects from their neighbors, as they were instructed to do. Let’s give them a day to do that.
The men were getting circumcised. I assume they needed a few days to recover.
So, if we were being generous with their time, they needed at most a week to prepare for Pesach. And if that’s so, if my math and history are correct, the Jewish People really had oodles of time at their disposal, so why did G-d inform them about Pesach two weeks before it started? What were the Jewish People supposed to be doing during that time? Was He trying to just get us anxious?! What was that time for?
Clearly, no one was listening to the Torah reading today. Because the answer is right there. G-d says, “Hachodesh hazeh lachem, this month is the first month of the Jewish year.” And then, “On the tenth of the month, you should go a get a lamb to slaughter.” It’s quite clear that the reason G-d tells the Jewish People about Pesach fourteen days before it happens is for one reason and one reason only – to give them a heads up about the Pascal Lamb.
Now of course, this doesn’t fully answer our question. If they were not going to take the lamb until the tenth of the month, and not going to roast the lamb until the 14th of the month, why do they need to know about this Mitzvah two weeks in advance?
So, if you were listening to the Torah reading… you would know that there is a law about the Korban Pesach – lo sosiru mimenu ad boker, there were to be no leftovers. The entire lamb had to be eaten on the night of Pesach.
How many people could a lamb feed?
According to our good friends at bigroast.com, a regular sized lamb can feed… 45 people!
So, if you needed to make sure that there were no leftovers, and assuming your family size was let’s just say, 8 people, you needed to invite guests. A lot of guests.
I believe the extra week was given to the Jewish People for this reason alone; to invite guests for Pesach.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that this is precisely why we were instructed to make sure there were no leftovers; to ensure that the Pesach Seder would not be experienced alone. The true sign of freedom is a person or a family who are not simply focused on their own survival and wellbeing. The true sign of freedom is a person or a family who care about others.
This is why we begin the Seder with an invitation to guests. How do we begin the section of Maggid? “Ha lachma anya, this is the bread of affliction, kol dichfin, yeisi v’yechol, whoever is hungry, come and eat.”
It’s a bizarre passage. Who exactly are we inviting when we say those words? Our friends and family are already at the table with us when it’s said.
The Avudraham, a 14th century Spanish Torah scholar, relates that it was a genuine invitation. In his time, people would actually open their doors at the beginning of the seder and call out those words – “If you’re hungry, come and join me.” People in need would be waiting in the streets for these invitations. This practice was a perpetuation of the very first Pesach seder, in which no one ate alone, every person was accounted for. Though we no longer do this, by saying those words at the beginning of the seder, we remind ourselves of this beautiful custom. It’s so central to the night, that it is the opening passage in the section of Maggid. It’s to remind us that sharing, caring, ensuring that we are not just focused on ourselves is the primary feature of a free and dignified person.
The most shocking and devastating section in the book, Night, by Elie Wiesel, describes a German throwing a scrap of bread to a group of starving Jews. Wiesel relates how the Jews, who haven’t eaten for days start fighting viciously over the tiny piece of food. One man is victorious; he proudly holds up the crust of bread after wrestling it away from everyone else. And then he’s pounced upon by another starving man, who beats him, and ultimately beats him to death. Wiesel drily comments that it was a son who killed his own father for a piece of bread.
That’s what starvation does to a person. It turns them into an animal. That’s what a slavery does to a person. They become entirely focused on survival and self-preservation.
And so, on the weeks leading up to Pesach, the Jewish People were told, you are no longer slaves; you are free. You are no longer focused only on survival; you are dignified. You are no longer subject to the rules of our base inclinations; you are a master of your own destiny. You are no longer a taker; you are a giver.
For two weeks the Jewish People went around, checking in on their neighbors, especially those who didn’t have a family of their own, or those who didn’t have an intact family, or those who had less than the other Jews, and invited them to the Pesach seder.
Maybe they were turned down. But I hope that didn’t dissuade them. Perhaps they offered to walk near them as they travelled into the frightening desert to provide some moral support. Perhaps they made a mental note to check in with them at some later time in the year knowing that it wasn’t only Pesach that these people struggled. Perhaps they invited them to a different meal at a different time or take them out for the Egyptian equivalent of a coffee. There are many ways to make sure that those who are lonely feel a little less alone.
I imagine that stuffing 45 people into a home the size of a two-car garage was not so comfortable. Maybe some of the guests made them a little uncomfortable. But freedom is not always comfortable. Doing the right thing is not always comfortable.
We have two weeks and five days to prepare for Pesach – that’s five more days than our ancestors. Cleaning our homes from chameitz is important. Having a delicious Pesach menu is great. But real freedom, the freedom that our ancestors tasted in the days leading up to Pesach, is the freedom to share. Not everyone can have 45 people at their seder. But every single one of us can and must make sure that no one, no one at all, is left feeling alone.