Haftarah for The First Day of Pesah (Joshua 5:2-6:1; 6:27)
April 4, 2015 / 15 Nisan 5775
Upon entering the land of Canaan, God commanded Joshua to circumcise the males among them so that the Pesah sacrifice could again be offered. This was necessary since circumcision had not been performed during the forty year desert sojourn: “This is the reason why Joshua had the circumcision performed: All of the people who had come out of Egypt, all the males of military age, had died during the desert wanderings after leaving Egypt. Now, whereas all of the people who came out of Egypt had been circumcised, none of the people born after the exodus, during the desert wanderings, had been circumcised.” (5:4-5)
The biblical story does not relate the reason why circumcision (brit milah) was not performed in the desert nor explain why Pesah was only celebrated during the first year of the desert only to be celebrated again after the people entered the land. The Talmud takes up this question and offers two answers: “Why were they not circumcised in the wilderness? If you wish I might say: Because of the weakness suffered on account of the journey; or alternatively, I might say: Because the North wind (known for its healing power) did not blow upon them. For it was taught: In all the forty years during which Israel was in the wilderness the North wind did not blow upon them. What was the reason [that the North wind did not blow]? If you wish I might say: Because they were under divine displeasure. Or if you prefer I might say: In order that the clouds of glory might not be scattered.” (Yevamot 71a-b)
The Talmud’s answers serve as an apology for what would otherwise be inexplicable behavior. After all, how could it be that the children of Israel did not circumcise themselves in the desert? Still, it offers two radically different approaches to the problem. The first explanation suggests that Israel was deterred from performing the mitzvot of brit milah and Pesah because of the exigencies of their national mission. Once this mission was accomplished, they could return to these two most nationalistic of mitzvot. The other explanation is more complicated. The “North wind” is clearly symbolic of their relationship with God. One sage contends that their observance was preempted by their divine displeasure (sinful behavior: for Rashi, the sin of the golden calf; for Tosafot, the sin of the spies). The other sage proposes (it seems to me) that their observance was deterred by factors beyond their control.
Homecoming (entering the land) meant a return to a reality where one had to contend with the exigencies of life while also maintaining those things which define identity. This is the story that Joshua reclaimed for the people of Israel.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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