Living Lessons from the Korban Pesach

Pesach 5781 | March 2021

Rabbi Avi Weiss


As we’re about to leave Egypt, we are commanded to offer a Paschal Lamb. While the biblical mandate is presented rather briefly in chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, the Talmud devotes five chapters to explicate its laws. Built into its intricacies are spiritual, relevant messages.

1) Stay Humble (lo tizbach al chamets): By noon on the day before Passover, when the sacrifice can be offered, no leaven (chametz) can be in the house (Exodus 23:18, Pesachim 28b). The sacrifice is a celebration of the great victory over Egypt. Precisely when victorious, one could become “bloated.” And so, chametz, puffed up dough, symbolic in the Talmud (Berachot 17a) and in later chassidic literature of hubris and self-absorption, cannot be present or possessed – reminding us to remain humble even when most successful.

2) Make Space: Every morning and late afternoon, the Standard Sacrifice (Korban Tamid) is the first and last to be offered. There is one exception – the Paschal Lamb is offered after the afternoon Tamid. By dint of its constancy, the Tamid has the right to maintain its position as first and last always, yet it makes way for the Paschal Lamb, teaching the importance of stepping back and making space for others when necessary (Pesachim 58a).

3) Inner Meaning (Korban Chagigah-Pesach): Along with the Paschal Lamb, the holiday sacrifice (Korban Chagigah) is offered. The function of the Chagigah was to fill a person up prior to their eating the Korban Pesach. As a result, the Paschal Lamb was eaten when one was already satiated (Pesachim 70a). The eating of the Paschal Lamb is not primarily for satisfying our physical needs – it is rather to focus on celebrating the inner spiritual meaning of the holiday.

4) Empathize (ein korban tzibbur chaluk): If the majority of the community is impure, the Paschal Lamb is still to be offered by everyone based on the principle that impurity is waived for the sake of community (Tumah hudcha be’tzibbur). Interestingly, even those who are pure offer their sacrifice as if their status is one of impurity. In this way, we do not split the community (ein korban tzibbur chaluk, Pesachim 79b-80a). In other words, no matter my purity, if the majority is impure, I am impure – emotionally empathizing with the amcha.

5) Making a Difference (palga palga): And suppose, the Talmud asks, 50% of the people are pure, and 50% are not – what then? While the Talmud weaves a discussion about what to do in such circumstances (Pesachim 79b), one wonders, why the debate, as the possibility of such a perfectly even split is highly unlikely. Here, the law may inspire us to consider the observation made by Maimonides that we should view our deeds and the world as evenly balanced (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4). The next good deed we perform could make all the difference.

6) Reflect (piggul): Among the laws of the Paschal Lamb—and for that matter all sacrifices— is the concept of piggul (Leviticus 7:18, 19:5-7; Pesachim 120b). If one’s thoughts are inappropriate, such as imagining eating the sacrifice after its prescribed time, the sacrifice is invalid. Our inner thoughts play a crucial role in our carrying out the details of the external ritual obligations; so too, in our daily lives as our inner thoughts are reflected in our actions.

7) Properly Prepare (minui): All who eat of the Paschal Lamb must RSVP (Pesachim 61a) – registering their intent to join a particular group for the ritual. This teaches the importance of intentionality – of focusing and preparing before participating in an important ritual. In the end, an act is as meaningful as its preliminaries. As Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik said, there is no holiness without preparation.

8) Turn Fate Into Destiny (tzli): The Talmud emphasizes that any accumulation of water on the skewer may leave the impression that the Paschal Lamb is being cooked, which would invalidate the sacrifice (Pesachim 74a). There must be absolute clarity that the animal is being roasted. This burning simulates the fire of exile. In the same breath, fire can transform metal into a more useful instrument for productivity. Indeed, we need to be on fire, we need inner passion, to be redeemed. History has shown that when oppressed, when aflame, we rise to the occasion, become tougher, and have the capacity, as Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik pointed out, to “turn fate into destiny.”

9) See Good in Others (rimon): The skewer used is pomegranate wood (Mishna Pesachim 7:1). The pomegranate reminds us of the rabbinic teaching that even the greatest sinners – like the pomegranate’s outer shell, which is not eaten and, if you will, is cast away – have endless inner pure seeds and have the capacity to return (Berachot 57a). This concept is reflected in the story told by Dr. Yaffa Eliach, of blessed memory, of the Judenrat Schneeweiss who turned on his own people. One Yom Kippur, however, he refused to submit to Nazi demands that he force Jews in the camp to eat. He was shot dead on the spot. Dr. Eliach commented: Like a pomegranate, Schneeweiss showed that those seemingly furthest away have sparks, seeds of goodness.

10) Not Shaming Others (nossar): If the Paschal Lamb becomes tameh (impure), it is burnt near the Temple. This, says the Talmud, is in order to embarrass the owner as, no doubt, he was negligent in allowing the sacrifice to become tameh. And yet, the wood used for fire comes from the pyre of the altar (not one’s personal wood). This, says the Talmud (Pesachim 81b), is in order to not embarrass those who may be poor and not possess personal wood. An important teaching: While there are times that rebuke through shame is necessary, those moments are rare – ultimately, embarrassing another should be avoided.

11) Silence: The Talmud offers an intricate discussion on what one does and what one says if searching for a designated Paschal Lamb that had been lost. Interestingly, it concludes that sometimes the best solution can be achieved if one says nothing, i.e. not detailing to the registered group that he is conducting this search on their behalf. It concludes by underscoring the importance of holding back speech (Pesachim 99a). All my adult life, I’ve been encouraging people to speak out. But the Talmud teaches that sometimes it is best to remain silent. As Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel has said, “I have found nothing better for a person than silence” (Avot 1:17).

12) Foundational Mission (yachid me’ikra): Rabbi Yehuda in the Talmud posits that one cannot sacrifice and eat the Paschal Lamb alone, highlighting the importance of community. And while those registered in a group may drop out and join another group, minimally, says Rabbi Yehuda, one of the individuals first signed up must remain (Pesachim 99a). This perhaps teaches that while a mission may evolve, reshape, even expand, it should never turn its back on its original “roots” – an earlier participant must always be present.

13) Second Chance (Pesach Sheni): If one is too far from the Temple (derech rechoka), he or she is given another opportunity to offer the Korban Pesach thirty days later, on Pesach Sheni. How far is too far away? One position insists it is even one step outside of the Temple area (Pesachim 93b). Truth be told, one can be far, but close; just as one can be close, and yet far. And so Pesach Sheni could be a second chance for one who is physically close, but spiritually distant. Such individuals are warmly welcomed.

14) Passing Over (Pesach – pise’ach): The Talmud records differences between the first Paschal Lamb slaughtered and those that followed (Pesachim 96a). As we left Egypt, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the two side posts of the door and the lintel (Exodus 12:7). The Angel of Death, seeing the blood, passed over that home, sparing the first born Israelite inside. Hence, the holiday is called Pesach – Pass Over. But vocalized differently, Pesach could read pise’ach – literally, one who limps or is lame. While there is, to my knowledge, no Midrash that speaks to this association, it may teach an important message. Lest one think that Passover is meant to celebrate only those of particular strength, with an ability to “pass over,” the term pise’ach reminds us to reach out to the disadvantaged, the vulnerable – those who even find it difficult to walk. As we were downtrodden in Egypt, so, too, should we be there for those who are downtrodden, forgotten, too often left out. The pise’ach plays a central role in Pesach – in the spirit of the ha lachma anya (this is the bread of affliction) – kol ditsrich yetei v’yifsach, all who are needy are welcome to join in the Pesach feast.

Yes, the laws are intricate. The folios of Talmud running one page, one chapter into another. Still, beneath its surface it imparts spiritual messages, touching the soul, helping us soar higher and higher.