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Shemot/Exodus 12:26-27 And it shall be, when your sons say to you, "What is this service to you?" And you shall say: "This is a pesach sacrifice to the L-rd ..."
Moshe has just summoned all the elders of Israel and passed on to them the instructions for offering the Pesach sacrifice in Egypt - "Go, pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning" (Shemot 12:21-22, NJPS) - albeit in a very abbreviated form compared to the detail that he and Aharon have been receiving fromHaShem since the beginning of the chapter. Perhaps the summary is intended to convey the whole. Then in what most commentators take to be a shift of tense from present - "Go, do, now" - to future, "You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants" (v. 24, NJPS), he moves his perspective from today to the coming generations.
Nechama Leibowitz points out that, "this is the first of four occasions when the Torah admonishes us to teach our children (here, 13:8, 13:14 and D'varim 6:20-21), each time with a different response. These four texts are the basis for the model of the four types of son that the Hagaddah considers are to be addressed during the seder: the wise son, the evil or wicked son, the simple son and the son who doesn't know how to ask. The early Sages tell us that it is a father's duty "to teach his son according to his intelligence" (m. Pesachim 10:4) and the four questions in the Hagaddah are how the father is to teach the son who does not know how to ask. Umberto Cassuto affirms that: "It will be the duty of every father in Israel to remind his children of the events of that fateful night."1
Our text, above, is associated with the wicked son because of the speech verb that is used. Here the verb is , the Qal prefix 3mp form of the root , to say, whereas in two of the other occasions a form of the verb , to ask, is used. Leibowitz comments, "This question is associated with the wicked son, because the son 'says' rather than 'asks'. He does not really want a reply." This is why the Hagaddah says:
What does the wicked son say? "What does this service mean to you?", to you and not to him. Since he excluded himself from the community and denied G-d, you should, in the same way, set his teeth on edge and say to him: "because of this the L-rd did for me when I went forth from Egypt" - for me and not for you; if you had been there you would not have been redeemed.
RabbiHirsch connects this vividly with our generation: "This is the question asked by a generation which has become estranged from G-d, which places Man in the service of himself alone, and only places value in an action if it is of tangible use. Undisturbed by the derisive protests of a generation in which the spirit and meaning of the religious practices have been lost in the ossifying effects of materialism, you are to proclaim, let who will hear it, that it is still a meal that leads out of death into life."
Why should our children ask questions about our observance and celebration of Pesach? What is that they see and what questions will they ask? TheSforno lists a number of ideas: "It is not on a day of holy convocation, as are other sacrifices, nor is it in the time frame of other sacrifices, which are brought after the morning daily sacrifice and before the evening daily sacrifice. Why shouldn't one offering suffice for all Israel, as is the case with other communal sacrifices?" The Rashbam says that the observance of Pesach "is different from those of the other festivals in several respects," not least - as Ibn Ezra adds - "the unusual meal." Making a list of the way other festivals match the the agricultural calendar, Chizkuni explains that, "the counting of the Omer marks the start of the barley harvest, Shavuot, the wheat harvest, and the four species of the lulav, the fruit harvest. But what seasonal explanation is there for this?"
This leads us on to ask what the purpose of the repeated annual celebration of Pesach is really all about. Nahum Sarna suggests that, "this ritual has pedagogic function. Its peculiarities arouse the curiosity of children and so afford the opportunity to impart knowledge of the national traditions to the young." But is it just teaching history to children? Not according to Thomas Dozeman, who wants to go a lot further: "The unit 24-27 is intergenerational instruction in the form of a catechism. The question requires a response, activating memory which recalls and actively shapes the original event of salvation. Like the Eucharist, it is an anamnesis, an activation of memory to participate in a past event of salvation."2 Participation seems to be the key word is this, as Peter Enns agrees: "It is a reminder not just of what G-d has done but of what He continues to do. In fact, it is more than simply remembering ... By celebrating the Passover and the Feast, G-d's people in some mysterious sense participate in the Exodus themselves."3
It isn't just remembering, important though that is; the doing of it, the gritty eating of matzah for a whole week, accomplishes something - includes us in something - that is much bigger that the matzah themselves. Terence Fretheim gives us handle to it: "The Passover is ... a sacramental vehicle for making the exodus redemption real and effective for both present and subsequent generations. When Israel reenacts the Passover, it is not fiction, as if nothing really happens in the ritual, or all that happens is a recollection of the happenedness of an original event. The reenactment is as much a salvific event as the original enactment. The memory language is not a 'soft' matter, recalling to mind some story of the past. It is an entering into the reality of that event in such a way as to be reconstituted as the people of G-d thereby."4 Brevard Childs shows us this is also more than just us as individuals. The answer in our text "is not simply a report, but above all a confession to the ongoing participation of Israel in the decisive act of redemption from Egypt."5
Now let's just take that another couple of steps. The Sforno has a reply to his own question, above, to why each family or individual makes a Pesach offering, rather than - as on Yom Kippur - relying on one sacrifice for the nation. He answers, "each one must bring this sacrifice, for the miracle occurred with each individual as such, not to the community as a whole." Each individual house that had the blood of the Pesach offering daubed on the doorposts and lintel was passed over; those that did not were not. Those families that participated in and engaged with the ritual were redeemed; those that did not were not. Exactly the same applies to our relationship with Yeshua: those who confess Him as Lord and Saviour are saved, those who do not are not. Each believer must appropriate Yeshua's blood and sacrifice on the cross for themselves. There is no second-hand salvation experience.
Lastly, Childs makes a profound point: "The Exodus writer does not see the exodus as an 'act of G-d' distinct from the 'word of G-d' that explains it. In theological terms, the relation between act and interpretation, or event and word, is one which cannot be separated."6 Relationship with God - G-d's action - cannot be separated from an explanation or understanding of what that relationship is and how it works. Questions and answers, triggered by and arising from observed behaviour - because you do it if it matters to you - is one of the key ways in which action and word can remain integrated in our lives and witness. People will see our actions - and often the attitudes behind them - and ask questions to understand why we do what we do.
The gospels show that Yeshua always responded when He was asked questions - such as "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17, ESV) or "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4, ESV) - the question and answer dialogue provides the perfect mechanism for exploration and explanation. This is why Rav Sha'ul tells urges us to adopt the posture of "always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15, NASB). We must answer those questions and answer them well!
Chag Pesach Matzah!
1. - Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1983), page 144.
2. - Thomas B. Dozeman, Exodus, Eerdmans Critical Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 2009), pages 276-277.
3. - Peter Enns, Exodus, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), page 249.
4. - Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), page 139.
5. - Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), page 200.
6. - Ibid., page 204.
Further Study: Joshua 4:5-7; Colossians 4:5-6; 2 Timothy 2:24-26
Application: What have our children, our congregations, our friends and communities seen in us this week as we have kept the festival of Matzah? Have they seen something that has made them ask questions?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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