First Day of Pesach
(Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2-6:1, 6:27)
March 28, 2002
The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:1) notes the following curiosity in the Jewish calendar: There are four days identified as the beginning of a new year: on the first of Nisan [the month which contains Pesach] is the new year for kings and festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle [every tenth animal amongst cattle and sheep was to be given to the Temple. The tithed animal had to be born during the same year.] Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Shimon, however place this on the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri (the month which contains Rosh Hashanah] is the new year for years, for sabbatical and jubilee [The counting of years is reckoned from Rosh Hashanah to Rosh Hashanah.], for planting and vegetables. The first of Shvat is the new year for trees, according to Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel says that this new year is on the fifteenth of that month.
Both Rosh Hashanah and Pesach represent “new years” for the Jewish people. What then distinguishes these two festivals religiously? Rosh Hashanah which represents the “anniversary of the creation of the world” is the Jewish universal new year. It is the day when the entire world is judged. The festival of Pesach is a celebration of the birth of the Jews as a nation. The redemption from Egypt was an event which gave the children of Israel its identity. This identity was manifest in two particular rituals: brit milah (ritual circumcision) and korban pesach (the Passover sacrifice). These two rituals provide the link between the festival’s Torah reading and its haftarah. The Torah reading notes the following requirement for those who celebrated the first Pesach: “If a stranger who dwells with you would offer the Passover to the Lord, all his males must be circumcised; then he shall be admitted to offer it; he shall then be a citizen of the country. But no uncircumcised person my eat of it.” (Exodus 12:48)
Similarly, Joshua, who led the children of Israel into the land of Canaan at the end of the forty year sojourn in the desert, was commanded by God to circumcise the people before they celebrated the first Pesach upon entering the land. After Joshua had performed this commandment, God pronounced: “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” (Joshua 5:9) What was the “disgrace” that God removed from them? Most of the medieval commentators conclude that the “disgrace of Egypt” refers to being uncircumcised. Rabbi Levi ben Gershom (Ralbag), the 13th-14th century French philosopher and Bible commentator, found deeper significance in God’s statement. He asserts that the “disgrace of Egypt” represents the beliefs and immoral behavior of the Egyptians. The commandments of circumcision and the Pesach sacrifice were symbolic representations of the removal of these two impediments to creating a holy people dedicated to God. The performance of these two commandments was crucial at the beginning of the journey through the desert in order to prepare the children of Israel to receive the Torah. It was also necessary to ready them for their life as a nation in their own land at the end of this journey.
These two commandments, brit milah and Pesach, still serve as a means to celebrate the uniqueness of belief and behavior which are meant to make Jewish people a “nation of priests and a holy people.” May they continue to serve this sacred task.
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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