A Passover Pilgrimage of the Mind

The drive from Ben Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv up into Jerusalem takes only about 35 minutes in non-rush hour traffic.  After initially crossing the coastal plain, one begins the steady climb of about 2,500 feet into the Judean Hills.  I always watch across the highway for a glimpse of the slowly-disintegrating personnel carriers left rusting as memorials to the soldiers and civilians who died there during the 1948 War of Independence. 

Then, I scan the hills for the first glimpse of the “Chords Bridge” tower that now marks the principal entry into the Holy City.  All the while, as my vehicle (usually a van-taxi) downshifts up the mountain, I marvel at the thought of my ancestors leaving their homes and making this laborious and dusty ascent by foot or donkey three times each year.  The book of Deuteronomy commanded them to do so for Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Festival of Weeks), and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) sacrifices and festivals, as commanded in Deuteronomy. 

What amazing -- and strenuous – journeys these must have been!  The populace’s lives must have revolved around the seasonal routines of crop planting, tending, harvesting, and making the “shalosh regalim” – three pilgrimages.  But when did this momentous commandment take effect?  Was it handed down on Sinai for future implementation, or was it a much later addition?  And if the latter, what might this mean for our view of Torah, generally, as Divinely-given and binding?

Last week we read the first of two special Shabbat-Pesach Torah portions.  In fulfillment of G-d’s command, Moses told the elders of Israel to pick out lambs for their families for the Passover sacrifice.  He admonished them: “You are not to go out, any man from the entrance to his house, until daybreak.”  (Ex. 12:21-22, 24, Everett Fox translation).  The Israelites needed to stay in their homes for protection when G-d passed-over them with the plague of the death of the first-born.  Moses further instructed, “You are to keep this word as a law for you and for your children, into the ages!”

This week’s reading for the second Shabbat during Pesach says something quite different:

לֹא תוּכַל לִזְבֹּחַ אֶת־ הַפָּסַח בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר־ יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ:  כִּי אִם ־אֶל ־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר ־יִבְחַר יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם תִּזְבַּח אֶת ־הַפֶּסַח בָּעָרֶב כְּבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ מוֹעֵד צֵאתְךָ מִמִּצְרָיִם: וּבִשַּׁלְתָּ וְאָכַלְתָּ בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ וּפָנִיתָ בַבֹּקֶר וְהָלַכְתָּ לְאֹהָלֶיךָ:

“You may not slaughter the Passover-offering within one of the gates (settlements) that YHWH your G-d gives you; rather, in the place that YHWH your G-d chooses his name to dwell you are to slaughter the Passover-offering, at setting-time, when the sun comes in, at the appointed-time of your going-out from Egypt.  You are to boil it and you are to eat it in the place that YHWH your G-d chooses.  Then you are to face about, at daybreak, and go back to your tents.  (Deuteronomy 16:5-7, Everett Fox translation).  

So, whereas Exodus explicitly commanded the Israelites to sacrifice the lamb at home and stay there all night, Deuteronomy explicitly forbad them from sacrificing it anywhere other than “the place that YHWH your G-d chooses” – which other Deuteronomic passages clarified meant only the Temple in Jerusalem.   

Whether one views these two sets of instructions as contradictory likely depends upon one’s overall view of Torah authorship.  If one believes that all of Torah was given by G-d on Sinai (albeit Deuteronomy was lost and then rediscovered in the Temple, as described in 2 Kings 22), then there is no contradiction.  The “don’t leave home” commandment applied only to the first Passover in Egypt, when blood was smeared on the lintel, whereas the “law for all time” refers to the annual sacrifice to be performed at the Temple as a commemoration of the original event.

But those who view Torah as a human-composed, even if G-d-inspired, document are more likely to view the Deuteronomic command as a make-over of Exodus.  The usual explanation is that the “only in Jerusalem” proscription was part of King Josiah’s seventh-century BCE political centralization reform program. 

Does it matter which view (if either) is historically correct?  Again, it likely depends on your view.  If you feel that the Torah was Divinely authored, and that if this is not the case, its contents and all that flow from it would be pointless, then it certainly does matter!  But if you feel that Torah was written by humans, even if inspired by G-d, then you might take a range of views, from “it’s pointless” to “human development of Torah and Jewish law is the method by which G-d’s will is transmitted through human hands.”  (I heard the latter view expressed by Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth, long a prominent figure in the Conservative Judaism Movement’s exposition of Jewish law, in a 2007 lecture in Jerusalem). 

Whatever one’s view of the historicity of Jewish Scripture, it is certainly possible to take a “Passover pilgrimage of the mind.”  We can marvel in our mind’s-eye at the spectacle that the annual Passover pilgrimage must actually have been 2,000 years ago.   According to Philo of Alexandria: "Multitudes of people from a multitude of cities flow in an endless stream to the Holy Temple for each festival... from the east and west, from the north and south" (On Laws 1:96).

Josephus reports that on Passover Eve, there were “at least 3,000,000” gathered at the Temple in the last years of its existence.  The Talmud (Pes. 64b) similarly records: "King Agrippa once wished to take a census of the hosts of Israel. He said to the high priest, 'Cast your eyes on the Passover offerings.' He took a kidney from each, and 600,000 pairs of kidneys were found there…”  

Even if both of these figures are greatly exaggerated, the immense crowds and the massive pilgrimages to reach the Temple must have been astonishing.  Moreover, the entire city must have been transformed by the influx of pilgrims.  For more details and descriptions, see: http://www.templeinstitute.org/passover.htm#nogo3

One of our obligations during Passover is to consider ourselves as having been personally redeemed from slavery in Egypt.  To feel that way is to feel connected with the long sweep of Jewish history, however that history actually occurred and/or was reconstructed.  Connecting with our past, and for many, with G-d, in recalling ancient Passover rituals enables us to seek meaning in our tradition and in our membership in an ancient peoplehood that “miraculously” – or due to Divine Grace – survives to this day.   

Chag Pesach Sameach!  Happy Passover! 

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