Over a two-week period our ancestors were told how to prepare for our national Exodus. Those commands, recorded in our parshah, described three activities:
- Designation and sacrifice of the korban pesach (Shemot 12:1-6);
- Placement of blood from the korban pesach on the entrances of their homes (12:7, 21-23);
- Circumcision of all males (12:43-50).
We could view these three activities as elements of the korban pesach. However, we might also see in them a broader theme, crucial for the Exodus.
In the late 1920’s, S. Y. Agnon wrote a short story called L’Veit Abba, “To Father’s House”. The protagonist begins the story working at home, but he is frustrated by labour which “has neither beginning nor end, which you start without benefit and from which one can never walk away.” He also suffers from an uncomfortable sense that he does not belong there. Abruptly, he decides to go to his father, whom he has not seen for many years, for Pesach. He departs in haste, but he then encounters delays which may be a product of his own ambivalence about visiting his father. Once in his father’s town, he encounters a heretical individual who wants to discuss the end of the book of Yehoshua. A little further along he finds himself in a tavern with “a set table” holding bottles of liquor, even as Pesach is about to begin. Finally, he arrives at his father’s home – but he remains outside, unable to enter, as the story ends.
To Father’s House works on several levels, one of which is a parable for our departure from Egypt. As the Talmud (Sotah 11a) describes, our labour in Egypt was perpetual and unrewarding, and we shared the protagonist’s sense of not belonging. Suffering made us long for the house of our Father, and we left in haste. (Shemot 12:11) We displayed great ambivalence, though, en route to our land; we even claimed that we had been better off in Egypt. The end of the book of Yehoshua (24:2-4) is part of the Haggadah, and the tavern’s “set table” parallels the Shulchan Orech phase of the Seder – but the heretic as well as the liquor, presumably grain-based, don’t fit at a reunion with our Father on Pesach. These events represent our own troubled journey to Israel. And in the end, like the generation of Jews who left Egypt, the hero does not actually enter the land.
Leaving Egypt or Going Home?
With this story, Agnon does more than summarize forty years of troubled travel; he puts the Exodus itself in proper perspective, as a central stage in a greater arc. The arc starts with the life of the family of Avraham and Sarah in Canaan, continues with our descent to Egypt, and sees our subjugation in Egypt. Then we leave Egypt, receive the Torah at Sinai, build a Mishkan and journey home. As Agnon hints with his title, the Exodus is not merely yetziat Mitzrayim, a group of slaves departing from Egypt. Rather, it is l’veit Abba, a journey of Hebrews back to the home in which we were raised in Bereishit, from which we had departed, and to which we had always been meant to return.
Seen in this light, the Exodus requires that we be identified as the rightful heirs of Avraham and Sarah, to merit that return home.
This is the role of the three preparatory activities outlined in our parshah:
- Circumcision was Avraham’s mitzvah, and it became the mark of the Jew.
- Korbanot were a hallmark of Avraham and Sarah, who built altars each time they settled a new part of Canaan.
- Placement of blood from the korban pesach marks the structure as a home dedicated to G-d, like the landmark tent of Avraham and Sarah.
Having performed these deeds, we were visibly ready to return home.
The conclusion of this arc comes in Yehoshua, Chapter 5, when G-d “removes the shame of Egypt” from our nation. (Yehoshua 5:9) The males are circumcised. (5:2-8) They bring a korban pesach. (5:10) And they camp in Gilgal (5:10), their first step in building a home in the land.
One odyssey met its completion long ago, but our religious and physical wanderings continue to describe a still longer arc. While we work toward the final Exodus, let us remember the need to identify ourselves as part of that original family. Whether through circumcision, korban and the Jewish home, or through other actions, we must identify ourselves as descendants of Avraham and Sarah, as part of meriting the long-awaited return To Father’s House.
Note: I call Gd "Father" here not to be misogynist, but because it fits Agnon's story.