Parasha Bo: Nation or religion

‘And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days.’ (Exodus 10:22)

Library from biblical times 521 (photo credit:
Library from biblical times 521
(photo credit:
“Your children shall ask you, ‘What is this service to you?’ You must answer ‘It is the Passover service to God’” (Exodus 12:26,27)
This week’s biblical portion details the genesis of the first great holiday of the Hebrew calendar as well as of Jewish history, the Festival of Passover or Pessah. But what is the real nature of our celebration? Is it a national holiday, the commemoration of our birth as a nation (akin to the American Fourth of July), or is it a religious holiday, the commemoration of our declaration of fealty to the God of Israel and the cosmos, akin to the American Thanksgiving?
The ramifications of this question are quite far-reaching, both in terms of who should celebrate Pessah as well as what ought be emphasized during our lengthy discussions around the Seder table!
The verses in the portion are ambiguous as to what precisely is to be the major message of the Seder. The entire Hebrew community in Egypt was commanded (Exodus 12:3-9) to slaughter the Pascal lamb on the afternoon (“between the evenings”) of the 14th day of Nisan, to take the blood from the sacrifice and place it on the door-posts and lintels of their homes, and to eat the sacrificial meal with matzot (unleavened bread) and bitter herbs – all during the same evening (the night of the 15th day of Nisan).
The 14th day of Nisan is referred to as the Festival of Pessah. It is the commemoration of the attachment of the Hebrews to the God of Israel and the world, of their risking their lives by sacrificing the lamb-god (Ares) of Egypt and placing its blood on their doorposts. This was clearly a religious act of commitment to God, which took place while they were still servants in Egypt, before the tenth plague; the death of the Egyptian first born. The actual consumption of the meat, however, took place at the Seder in Egypt on the evening of 15 Nisan, the date of the Exodus.
Does the Seder hark back to the previous day’s religious devotion? Or does it look forward to the actual freedom from Egypt at the end of that long ‘night’ of exile, when they entered the desert en route to the Promised Land with their unleavened bread as a newborn nation? In our Tannaitic literature, there are two separate accounts, which attest to the two possible topics of the Seder evening. The Pessah Haggada quotes the Mishna (B.T. Pessahim, chapter 10): “There is a story told of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah and Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, who were reclining at the Seder feast in Bnei Brak discussing the exodus from Egypt all night, until their disciples came to inform them, ‘Our masters, the time has arrived to recite the morning Sh’ma….’” Clearly it was the Exodus from Egypt – our birth as a nation – which animated the Seder in Bnei Brak.
However, the Tosefta in Pessahim (10,12) gives a parallel account of a Seder celebration: “There is a story told of Rabban Gamliel and the sages who were reclining at the Seder feast at the home of Boethius the son of Zunim in Lod and were immersed in studying the laws of Pessah all that night until they heard the crowing of the rooster; they then removed the Seder table and prepared to leave for the house of study for the morning prayer.” Clearly, it was the laws of the Pascal sacrifice – and the dedication to the religious laws of God – which animated this Seder in Lod!
Fascinatingly enough, there is a difference of opinion in the Talmud as to when the Seder must end, which likewise reflects these two opinions: Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah maintains that the eating of the afikoman – the conclusion of the Seder meal – must take place no later than midnight, whereas Rabbi Akiva argues that one may extend the Seder until daybreak – the actual time the Hebrews left Egypt “in haste” with their unleavened bread (see B.T. Brachot 9b). The first opinion would emphasize the religious nature of the Seder, whereas the second would stress the national nature of our freedom from Egypt.
Normative halacha – as well as the conduct of these sages themselves – would seem to be in accordance with the conclusion of the first Mishna in Babylonian Talmud Brachot, which rules that “Whenever our sages limit a ritual to midnight, it may be performed until the rise of the morning star; the limitation is only to keep us far from transgression.”
I would therefore argue that we celebrate our national freedom on Pessah, but the ideal of, and the necessity to fight and sacrifice for, freedom is rooted in the Divine creation of every human being in the image of God; our fealty to God demands that we work toward the freedom of every moral human being!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.