Back in November, Jewish Americans grew very excited over the fact that Thanksgiving would fall out on Hanukah for the first time in nearly a century. Well imagine for a moment if Thanksgiving were to coincide with a different Jewish holiday – Passover. How epic would that be? Granted, Thanksgivover (Passogiving?) doesn’t have the same ring to it as Thanksgivukkah does. But we’d probably hype it up just the same.
Actually, “Thanksgivover” is inevitable, astronomically speaking. Maimonides figured this one out as early as the twelfth-century, and predicted that the Messiah would arrive before we ever reach that point. That’s not our topic for right now, though. This week, let’s consider Thanksgiving itself – not American Thanksgiving, but “thanksgiving” as it appears in the Torah. When we do so, we’ll discover some fascinating connections between it and the upcoming holiday of Passover.
In English translations of the Bible, “thanksgiving” refers to the ritual sacrifice presented in the Temple by somebody who has survived a difficult or dangerous situation. Specifically, Rashi teaches us (Lev. 7:12), the obligation to offer this token of gratitude in Jerusalem applies to anybody who “made a sea-voyage, or journeyed in the desert, or was imprisoned, or took ill,” and who emerged safely from his or her ordeal.
Where things start get interesting is in the Talmud. According to our sages (Menaḥot 46), anybody who prepared a thanksgiving offering was required to bring forty loaves of bread along with the animal which he would slaughter. This posed a real problem, because the Torah stipulates that “the thanksgiving offering must be eaten during the day on which it is offered” – that is, none of it “may be left over until morning” (Lev. 7:15). How in the world was one person supposed to consume an entire sheep and forty loaves of bread all by himself, in just one day?
The answer, of course, is that he wasn’t. To that end, Netziv (פירוש העמק דבר שם) spells out the obvious solution: invite friends! Indeed, that is the whole point of the thanksgiving offering, he claims. When we receive good news or mark a momentous milestone in our lives – in short, whenever we have cause to celebrate a happy occasion – the Torah encourages us to share of our joy with others. Thus arose the custom to host parties upon reaching the age of Bar / Bat Mitzvah, getting married, moving into a new house, or welcoming a child into the family.
With this background in mind, we are now ready to think about the theme of this Shabbat.
In honor of the upcoming month of Nissan – the month in which we celebrate Passover – Jews around the world will be supplementing the standard Torah portion for this week with a short passage describing the Passover sacrifice which our ancestors offered and ate a few days before leaving Egypt. As we read in the Mafitr, Hashem commands the people to consume the meat of this sacrifice “in haste:” with “your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand” (Ex. 12:11). Why so serious? Because, He explains, on the very evening during which the Israelites would partake in this ritual meal, the Egyptians would be struck with the Plague of the Firstborn – and by midnight, those selfsame Egyptians would be frantically pressing the Israelites to “get out of the country before we all die!” (cf. Ex. 12:23). In other words, things would get pretty hectic, pretty quickly. For this reason, the ceremony of the Passover offering is aimed, at least in part, at impressing a sense of urgency upon the soon-to-be-freed slaves.
But is that all it’s about? Well, the Torah does stipulate that “you must not leave over any of it [i.e. the meat of the Passover offering] until morning,” and that “whatever is left over until morning you shall burn in fire” (Ex. 12:10). At first glance, it would seem that these laws are directed towards the same purpose as the laws which we considered above – namely, to prevent the Israelites from falling under the mistaken impression that they’ve got “all the time in the world.” Yet, as we saw in connection with the thanksgiving offering, there might be an altogether different reason for the prohibition against saving some of the Passover offering for the next day. By banning leftovers, Netziv taught us a few minutes ago, Hashem forces us to have guests. Maybe that’s what the Torah’s really getting at here: that we’re supposed to partake of the Passover offering in community with others. We cannot leave over, so we must invite over.
After all, a lamb – the animal offered for the Passover sacrifice – is pretty big. By one estimate, it can feed up to forty-five people. The Torah anticipates this, and is ready with a solution: “If the household is too small for a lamb,” it states, knowing that most will be, “then let each man and his nearby neighbor split a lamb, according to the number of people and their ability to eat” (Ex. 12:4). That people would join together to share in the Passover sacrifice, then, is something which Hashem readily endorses, and in fact, encourages.
In this light, perhaps we may better understand another guideline regulating the consumption of the Passover sacrifice. Hashem instructs the Israelites that “you shall not eat it rare (others: ‘raw’) or boiled in water, but rather, roasted over the fire its head with its legs and with its innards” (Ex. 12:9). That’s interesting. We know that raw lamb is a popular dish in many Middle Eastern cultures – the Lebanese, for instance, call it kibbe nayyeh (think “כבש נא”). But on the eve of the exodus, the Torah explicitly forbids כבש נא. Why?
The answer, it seems, is that the Passover sacrifice must not only be fit to eat, but also fit to serve. Had the whole point of this ceremony been merely to emphasize that the Israelites need to “get a move on,” then, yes, the meat should have been served raw, rare, or even cooked in water – certainly not roasted in its entirety! But this ritual isn’t all about speed. There’s another dimension at play here, because this is a formal meal. We’re expecting company. And when that’s the case, we try to be a little fancier than usual.
So as it turns out, there’s an interesting dynamic playing itself out in these verses. On the one hand, the mood around the table as the Israelites ate the Passover sacrifice was supposed to be fast and frenetic. On the other hand, it was supposed to be friendly; social; communal. Those two goals seem to contradict. What’s going on?
The night of the exodus, and the hours immediately following it, made for one of the most stressful times which the Jewish people ever experienced collectively. As humans, we’ve developed two general strategies for coping with situations such as these – situations which tax us mentally, emotionally, and physically. Of the two, most of us are probably more familiar with the response pattern known as fight-or-flight: growing aggressive and gearing up for conflict, while simultaneously preparing to avoid it if possible or necessary. But in addition to fight-or-flight, psychologists have identified a second, opposite way in which we commonly react to perceived threats, which they call tend-and-befriend: drawing one’s family close and leaning on one’s friends for support. Across species, experts claim, males prefer to fight-or-flee; females, to tend-and-befriend.
What’s fascinating about the ceremony of the Passover sacrifice is that it facilities both of these responses. By “girding their loins,” the Israelites readied themselves for conflict with the Egyptians (for the confrontational / courageous connotation of the phrase “girded loins,” see, for example, II Kings 1:8; II Kings 4:29; II Kings 9:1; Jeremiah 1:17; Isaiah 5:27; Ezekiel 23:15; Job 38:3; and Proverbs 31:17). At the same time, “eating in haste,” with their “shoes on their feet” and their “staffs in the hands,” prepared the people for the chase which they’d soon face. Taken together, these two elements cover the fight-or-flight instinct, which the Torah validates, to a certain extent.
But Hashem also tasks us with tending-and-befriending. “The only thing that will redeem mankind,” wrote British philosopher Bertrand Russell, “is cooperation.” “We are only as strong as we are united” echoed J.K. Rowling, his compatriot. And when the Torah went out of its way to insist that – despite everything going on around them – our ancestors would eat the Passover sacrifice together, it was teaching them the very same lesson.