Friday, March 30, 2012

An Erev Pesach thought

This is an article I wrote for this week's Toronto Torah. I think I overwrote it a bit, but I still like it...

Our ancestor Yitzchak sought to pass the blessing of his father, Avraham, to his elder son, Esav. He summoned Esav and said, in the words of a midrash (Pirkei d'Rabbi Eliezer 31), "My son! Tonight the upper realms sing, tonight the stores of dew are opened, today is the blessing of the dew. Prepare tasty food for me, and I will bless you while I yet live." This midrash then continues to tell us that the date when Esav was to be blessed, but instead Yaakov inherited his father's mantle, was the fourteenth of Nisan, commonly known as Erev Pesach.

Why should we associate the communication of this ancestral blessing with Pesach? This midrash explains that Yitzchak's menu betrays the secret; why else would this elderly patriarch have been interested in a meal of two goats? This must have been a desire to anticipate the future Pesach celebration by partaking in a korban chagigah and a korban pesach.

We might amplify the midrashic connection by noting that Yitzchak's blessing was drawn to the fourteenth of Nisan by intent, not coincidence. The midrash itself states that Yitzchak chose this date for its special portent; building on that text, we might suggest that the fourteenth, when the stores of dew are opened, is a day of fateful transition, completion of ancient journeys and incipience of new ones.

That original fourteenth of Nisan certainly fits this description. Conferral of Avraham's heritage upon Yaakov marked the completion of Avraham and Sarah's journey, the selection of a third fibre for the triple-threaded cord (Kohelet 4:12) which would anchor the continuity of the Jewish people. At the same time, though, a new journey began, for on this day Yaakov was compelled to flee into exile, embarking upon the creation of the nucleus of the Jewish people, the seventy souls who would ultimately descend to Egypt.

In the days of the original Pesach, too, the fourteenth represented a critical historical juncture. A nation of slaves sacrificed the Pesach lamb and thereby completed the sentence decreed centuries earlier, ending its sojourn in a land not its own. At the same instant, a nation of free women and men took their first tentative steps in the service of G-d, trailing pillars of fire and cloud into the wilderness.

Forever forward in Jewish history, as we note in Nirtzah, the fourteenth would be a moment of transition, the hours of entrée into "chatzi halaylah" beginning a new day.

This completion-and-beginning character of the fourteenth of Nisan is seen in the Talmud Yerushalmi, too, in two different explanations for the prohibition against labour on that date. The sages offered two different explanations for this prohibition:

"It would be illogical for you to be immersed in your work, while your korban was brought." (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim 4:1)

"Exodus 12:11 identifies this day as 'It is a Pesach for G-d'." (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim 4:6)

The first explanation sees the fourteenth as Erev Pesach, when we sacrifice a korban which will only be eaten that night; we do not perform work because we must occupy ourselves with preparation for that night. The fourteenth is a bridesmaid, her honour acquired by association with a journey which will begin only after her time is past. The second explanation, though, sees the fourteenth as Pesach, a holiday in its own right, "Pesach for G-d." This date is a milestone, completing the historic path.

Certainly, we are more familiar with the fourteenth of Nisan as "Erev Pesach," but our sages did refer to this day as "Pesach", a Yom Tov in its right. As noted by Professor Yitzchak Gilat (, the Mishnah (Pesachim 1:7) identified the fourteenth by the name "Pesach". Philo, living two thousand years ago, called it "Pesach", as did Josephus in his Wars of the Jews.

This dual message is ours to claim on the fourteenth of Nisan, every year. The Jew does not equate "history" with "past"; we see historic milestones in every birth, bat mitzvah, wedding and death, and we view our personal and communal drives toward spiritual achievement through lenses of portent and meaning. The fourteenth of Nisan, then, is an ideal time to take stock of where we have been, to see the journey of the past year as complete, and to celebrate a Pesach. At the same time, it is the establishment of new goals, the start of a new journey, an Erev Pesach. May this year's fourteenth serve as both for all of us, ushering in greater redemption for us all.Link


  1. It would be interesting to see if there is a common thread to other episodes in the Torah that our Rabbis have found a link to Pesach. I can name two off the top of my head: Avraham and the three guests, Lot saved by the Angels.

  2. Yahser Koach - beautiful! Can't wait for a chance to read the entire article.

  3. Anonymous 6:12 PM-
    Interesting thought.

    Thanks... but that is the whole article...