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Isaiah 52:12 For you shall not go out in haste and in flight, you shall not walk; for YHVH is walking before you and your rear-guard is the G-d of Israel.
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Why is this text important for Passover? Because the ancient rabbis contrasted it with the instructions given for eating the first Passover: "This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: it is a passover offering to the L-RD" (Shemot 12:11, JPS). "Rabbi Samuel bar Nahman said: Seeing that in this world it was in haste you ate the roasted flesh, lo, what is said of the manner of your deliverance in the world to come?" (Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 15).
The Israelites were told to select a lamb for each family on the tenth day of the month and keep watch over it until the fourteenth day, when it is to be slaughtered "between the twilights" (Shemot 12:6). The blood is to be daubed on the doorposts and the lintel of the houses where the Israelites live, and the flesh of the lamb is to be roasted whole over the fire and eaten with bitter herbs and unleavened bread. But the manner of eating is unusual; all the guests are to be ready to leave Egypt that night, packed and cleared down, and the meal is to be eaten quickly - in haste. This seems to be the opposite of the way Passover is celebrated today; now we work through the haggadah leisurely, drinking our four cups of wine, telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt, being sure - as Rabban Gamliel said - to mention the Passover sacrifice, the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs. We pass round the matzah, the horseradish and the charoset; we eat a big celebratory meal. Perhaps most telling of all, we recline on pillows or comfy chairs; we relax and seem to take all the time in the world: a good seder can take three hours or more! How different this night is from the first Passover night. Why should this be? The clue lies in some of the words we say together: "Once we were slaves, but now we are free!" The seder has been slowed down and lengthened from the original observance in Egypt because we are now a free people, no longer under the heel of Pharaoh; we take our time over the liturgy and the meal precisely because we can: our time is our own.
At midnight,HaShem "went through the land of Egypt and struck down all the firstborn of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the cattle" (Shemot 12:29). Moshe and Aharon were summoned by Pharaoh and Israel was sent out, urged by all the people "lest we all die" (v. 33). We left very much in haste, so much so that the next day's dough had not had time to rise (v. 14). "they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves" (v. 39, JPS). We left in haste and fled from Egypt, and spent the next few days in flight before Pharaoh's army. This was how the L-rd delivered us: with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand. We travelled swiftly: "The L-RD went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night" (13:31, JPS), with HaShem before us, leading us on. When Pharaoh finally caught up, "the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel" (14:19-20, JPS); He went before us and came behind us, to protect us and surround us.
This, then, is why Samuel bar Nahman is interested in the Isaiah text: "For you will not depart in haste, nor will you leave in flight; for the L-RD is marching before you, the G-d of Israel is your rear guard" (Isaiah 52:12, JPS). Isaiah is prophesying about the second Exodus in the history of the Israelites: the exiles being sent home from Babylon by Cyrus at the end of the Babylonian captivity. The parallels to the first Exodus are quite striking; although there were no plagues or mighty signs, Cyrus the Great - the king of Persia and the founder of the Achaemenid empire - was used by HaShem to send the exiles back to Jerusalem, with instructions to build a temple to the G-d of Israel there; the Israelites were given all the gold and silver vessels and furniture from the first Temple to return to the Sanctuary and letters of authority over the governors of the Persian empire - the L-rd went before them and behind them, securing their journey through the desert back to Judah. Yet the process was also quite different: the Israelites had plenty of time to gather themselves together, to assemble at a future date in a public place; the Persian officials were there to bless them on their way and they left in peace and honour - no hasty departure or flight.
Although there is a clear fulfillment of Isaiah's words between 538 BCE, when Cyrus captured Babylon, and 521-516 BCE when the second Temple was built, it is also clear from the presence of significant Jewish population in Babylon for the next 1200 years that the return was partial - many Jews simply chose to stay put in the communities they had created in Babylon. Samuel bar Nahman knew this well; he lived in Israel somewhere between 200-300 CE and had travelled to Babylon for a short time in his youth (b. Sanhedrin 96a). He therefore taught that Isaiah's words were still open and referring to a future redemption. Rather than referring to successive earthly redemptions, in the olam hazeh, this world, Samuel's words look far ahead to address the olam haba, the world to come. He wants to know how Israel will be redeemed in that world, when "All Israel has a share in the world to come, as it is said: 'And your people, all of them righteous, shall possess the land for all time; they are the shoot that I planted, My handiwork in which I glory' (Isaiah 60:21, JPS)" (m. Sanhedrin 10:1). "If in this world, you ate in haste", he asks, "how will your deliverance be in the world to come?"
Introducing a parable about the world to come - "The Kingdom of Heaven is like ..." - Yeshua told the people a story about a king who prepared a wedding feast for his son. Lots of people had been invited but, when the time came, they refused to come. In spite of being reminded and urged to come, they went off about their own business and ignored the king's invitation. The king was furious and punished those he had invited severely. But who was now to come to the wedding? The king told his slaves to "'go out to the street-corners and invite to the banquet as many as you find.' The slaves went out into the streets, gathered all the people they could find, the bad along with the good; and the wedding hall was filled with guests" (Matthew 22: 9-10, CJB). This is how the redemption will be: G-d will gather into His Kingdom everyone who can be persuaded to come, from the towns and the villages, from the streets or the hedgerows; no matter their situations, if they accept the invitation, they will be brought into the Kingdom. This will be a time of feasting and luxury, of leisure and comfort, rejoicing in what G-d has done.
John too saw a vision of that redemption in the world to come: "Then I heard what sounded like the roar of a huge crowd, like the sound of rushing waters, like loud peals of thunder, saying, 'Halleluyah! ADONAI, G-d of heaven's armies, has begun His reign! Let us rejoice and be glad! Let us give him the glory! For the time has come for the wedding of the Lamb, and His Bride has prepared herself - fine linen, bright and clean has been given her to wear' ... The angel said to me, 'Write: "How blessed are those who have been invited to the wedding feast of the Lamb!"' Then he added, 'These are God's very words'" (Revelation 19:6-9, CJB).
Another passage from Isaiah is always used at Passover; it is the invitation used at the start of the Seder, to invite others to share in G-d's redemption: "All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You without money, come, buy, and eat! Yes, come! Buy wine and milk without money - it's free! Why spend money for what isn't food, your wages for what doesn't satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and you will eat well, you will enjoy the fat of the land" (Isaiah 55:1-2, CJB). This uses the plenty of the Passover feast - the sumptuous meal, the delicacies and delights of traditional Jewish fare - to draw a picture of what G-d is doing for His people both in this age and in the age to come. We sometimes miss the 'now' aspect of the Kingdom of G-d: it isn't just about "pie in the sky when you die", although that is certainly a part of the picture. The Kingdom of G-d starts in each of our lives the moment we accept His invitation to join; the benefits of the Kingdom and the responsibility of the King to provide for us as His subjects start accruing immediately. We are to live in the Kingdom from day one.
This Passover, as we clear the leaven from our houses and our lives, let us be sure that we have accepted G-d's invitation to the wedding feast. Let us be sure that our loins are girded and our staffs are in our hands, so that we are ready to receive our redemption. As Rav Sha'ul told the community in Rome nearly two thousand years ago: "It is high time for you to rouse yourselves from sleep; for the final deliverance is nearer than when we first came to trust" (Romans 13:11, CJB). If so then, how much more so now!
Chag Pesach Sameach!
Further Study: Isaiah 21:11-12; Matthew 24:42-44; 1 Corinthians 15:34
Application: Now is the time to rejoice, for our redemption is almost at hand. There is still lots of work to do, but are you ready to greet the King?
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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