The People-Forming Passover

Leon Kass, "The People-Forming Passover," Mosaic, April 6, 2020.


The essay below is adapted from Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus by Leon R. Kass, forthcoming from Yale University Press in January 2021.

The biblical book of Exodus, writes Kass in his Introduction, “not only recounts the founding of the Israelite nation, one of the world’s oldest and most consequential peoples, . . . but also sheds light on enduring questions about nation building and peoplehood.” His scintillating, profound, and meticulously close reading of Exodus, “one of humankind’s most important texts,” masterfully draws out, line by line and chapter by chapter, its enduring moral, philosophical, and political significance for its time and ours.

In our excerpted essay, Kass focuses on the events of the night before and the morning of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt—the events rehearsed each year at the Passover table—and on their significance in the formation of the Jewish people and nation. Its appearance here follows by almost seven years the first monthly essay in the then-newly founded Mosaic:“The Ten Commandments: Why the Decalogue Matters,” by Leon R. Kass (June 2013). As we took pride in publishing that early taste of a larger study-in-progress, we take pride in presenting this offering from the now-completed work.

—The Editors

In chapter 12 of the book of Exodus, the long-awaited deliverance of the Children of Israel from their centuries of bondage in Egypt is finally at hand. But, for its own good reasons, the Torah does not go straight to the event.

Instead, the departure from Egypt, to be accomplished in consequence of the tenth and final plague—the death of Egypt’s firstborn—is preceded among the Children of Israel first by the communal enactment of a ritual sacrifice and meal and then by clear instructions regarding a special commemorative practice that the Israelites must follow in the future, indeed forever: the annual seven-day festival of Passover.

The one-time enactment is a modest (yet impressive) people-forming event, as each family declares its willingness to be delivered by killing a lamb, marking the doorposts of the house with its blood, and eating the prescribed meal of fire-roasted lamb, flatbread (matzah), and bitter herbs. The annual commemorative practice will be an elaborate people-renewing event, as each family relives the deliverance by telling its story and by re-creating the festive meal. Later on, post-deliverance, the commandment about the annual celebrations of Passover will be supplemented by another commemorative practice of redeeming firstborn sons (and sacrificing firstborn animals).

The commandment to celebrate Passover, the first national Israelite law, honors the first step in the Children of Israel’s becoming the people Israel: their deliverance by the Lord, as the Lord’s people, from the land of Egypt and the house of bondage. On the eve of their redemption, and for seven days annually thereafter, the Israelites are to remember, reenact, and celebrate—family by family, yet all at the same time and in the same way—their emergence as a united community, independent and out of Egypt, and grateful to the Lord Who delivered them.

If that is the big picture of what the text is up to, why does it not proceed directly to the main action? I have two suggestions.

To this point, the contest with Pharaoh has remained inconclusive. By now, we readers of the story may well suspect, as Pharaoh does not, that the decisive conclusion will soon be upon him. But while we await the finale, the text teaches us, as the Lord teaches the Children of Israel, that there is more at stake than getting the slaves out of Egypt.

In framing the actual Exodus by these first Israelite laws, the Torah clearly hints that the essence of the story lies not in mere (political) liberation from bondage but in liberation for a (more than political) way of life in relation to the Liberator. In this perspective, getting the Israelites physically out of Egypt is the easy part; much harder will be getting Egypt—both the Israelites’ slavish mentality and the abiding allure of Egyptian luxury and mores—out of their psyches. The first national laws thus give them and us a foretaste of what should replace Egypt in their souls. Even while still in Egypt, they are being primed for Sinai.

Second, until now the Israelite slaves have been almost entirely passive. They have cried out from their miseries. They have turned a deaf ear to Moses’s promise of divine redemption. They have watched from a distance the destructive effects of the plagues on their Egyptian masters. But they have done nothing to show that they deserve emancipation or even that they want to be redeemed.

If they are to make the transition from slavery toward the possibility of self-rule, the people themselves must do something to earn their redemption. The tasks they are given, both before and after their deliverance, are intended in part to make them worthy of being liberated: they are to act, and they are to act in obedience to God’s instructions; they are to act trusting in God and in His servant Moses.

Obedience as the ticket to liberation seems paradoxical. But in fact the text never speaks of the deliverance of Israel from Egypt in terms of freedom. The Torah’s Hebrew words for liberty, d’ror and ḥofesh, do not even occur. To be sure, the Israelites will be politically free from the house of bondage, in that they will not be slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. And they will have the power and opportunity to exercise choice. What they eventually will be invited to choose, however, will not be “freedom” but something else: righteousness and holiness, gained through willing obedience.


I. What to Expect From Exodus


If these are the goals of the prescribed rituals, the details of each reveal that there is even more going on. The contents of the ritual enactments are multiply meaningful. They convey teachings and inspire attitudes that will embody the way of life for the sake of which Israel is to be constituted as the Lord’s people. They simultaneously speak to the now-rejected way of life represented by Egypt. And they address those permanently dangerous aspects of the human soul that, when unchecked, gain disastrous expression (in Egypt and elsewhere) but, when regulated, carry the marks of God’s Way for humankind.

This last suggestion requires some explanation. As I tried to show in The Beginning of Wisdom, my book on Genesis, the seemingly historical stories at the very beginning of the Torah, before the call to Abraham, are also vehicles for conveying the timeless psychic and social roots of human life in all of their moral ambiguity. Adam and Eve are not just the first but also the paradigmatic man and woman. Cain and Abel are paradigmatic brothers. Babel is the quintessential city. By means of such stories, Genesis shows us not so much “what happened” as “what always happens” in the absence of moral and political instruction.

Although God’s Way, initiated with Abraham, begins to address some of man’s dangerous tendencies, several of these—such as sibling rivalry to the point of fratricide—plague each generation of the patriarchs. As a result, the reader coming upon Exodus hopes and expects that God’s plan for humankind—a plan to be carried forward by His chosen people, Israel—will directly address the evils that naturally lurk in the hearts of men.

Not accidentally, therefore, the substance of the rituals and laws framing the Exodus from Egypt will address such fundamental and highly problematic human matters as how we relate to the divine, how we relate to the rest of living nature, and how we relate to our mortality and our future—or, in the biblical context, to sacrificing, eating, and procreating.

Many peoples in the ancient world practiced animal sacrifice, even child sacrifice. But the Torah, at least at the start, is not at all keen on sacrificing.
The impulse to sacrifice has deep but conflicting roots in the human soul: on the one hand, the wish to control the powers-that-be by bribing them to do our bidding; on the other hand, the impulse to surrender to the powers-that-be by acts of violent self-abnegation. Many peoples in the ancient world practiced animal sacrifice, even child sacrifice. But the Torah, at least at the start, is not at all keen on sacrificing, which it regards as a problematic human invention. The voluntary offerings of Cain and Noah God neither requests nor even seems to want: He rejects the sacrifice of Cain (the inventor of sacrifices), and He makes a most negative comment on the animal sacrifice of Noah. Indeed, until now, God had asked only Abraham to bring a sacrifice—and He did so only to teach Abraham that He does not really want child sacrifice but only the father’s dedicated awe and fear of God.

Eating, though necessary to all animal and human life, is also problematic: to sustain life and form, eating destroys the life and form of others. The problem is especially severe in the human animal. Voracity, an emblem of man’s potentially tyrannical posture toward the world, extends all the way to cannibalism, just as the impulse to sacrifice can extend also to human—and child—sacrifice.

Finally, regarding procreation, life’s answer to mortality, the firstborn son—as herald and emblem of the next generation—represents both the strength of the father, extending his potency beyond the grave, and a threat to the father’s power, a living proof of his mortality and limited influence. Although fathers take pride in their paternity, they and their sons often struggle for supremacy. We remember Ham’s act of metaphorical patricide against his drunken father Noah, and Noah’s retaliatory curse of Ham’s son Canaan; Reuben’s sleeping with his father Jacob’s concubine; Pharaoh’s ambivalent relation to and desire to control childbirth, and not only among the Israelites.

In all of these fundamental aspects of human life, absent the coming of moral instruction and law, there is the possibility—indeed the likelihood—of two extremely dangerous and wrong-headed tendencies. On the one hand, there is the danger of imposing human reason and will on the world through manipulating sacrifices to the gods, through omnivorous transformation of nature (as food), and through the denial of procreation. On the other hand, there is the danger of surrendering human reason and will to wildness and chaos.

The way of life that the Lord has in store for humankind addresses both of these dangerous tendencies. Human life will be rationally ordered, but the order will not be man-made; it will not be willful, but reasonable. At the same time, the wilder and chaotic passions will be given room for expression, but within measure and under ritualized constraint.

Our animals, the produce of the earth, and the fruit of the human womb will be recognized as ours, but ours no thanks to us. Rather, they embody and reflect an ordered world that we did not make and from which we profit largely as receivers of blessings. Against the luxurious ways of Egypt, the way of Israel begins with modest and restrained animal sacrifice—animal, not human, and no more than can be eaten—with removal of the blood, the essence of life, used instead to consecrate the entire household in dedication to the Lord’s command. The flatbread or matzah—modest, simple, uncorrupted human food, made afresh each time as “mortal” bread and not transformed by human artfulness—limits appetites, moderates our belief in our permanence and our conceit of self-sufficiency, and reminds us that the bread of the earth, no less than the deliverance soon to be procured, is a blessing, not a solely human achievement.

Under the new way, the firstborn, including the human firstborn, will be seen as belonging to the Lord, not to nature or to our prideful selves—neither those who celebrate male potency nor those who celebrate maternal creativity in the opening of the womb. Yet the way of Israel eschews sacrificing the human firstborn, insisting squarely on reclaiming him from the Lord by an act of redemption. It is a repetition of the teaching of the binding of Isaac: God does not want child sacrifice, nor does He want His people to wish to sacrifice their children. He wants them to be dedicated to rearing their children in His ways.

Indeed, the practice of redeeming the firstborn commemorates not only the spared firstborns of Israel but (perhaps) also the humanity of the lost sons of Egypt. Those Egyptian children may have been justly taken as punishment for Pharaoh’s misdeeds and intransigence, and their deaths may have been necessary for Israel’s deliverance and for Egypt’s recognition that “I am the Lord.” But there is pathos, not to say iniquity, in this massive destruction of life, some of it surely guiltless: it is a fact that requires of Israel not so much atonement as acknowledgment. The Israelite lives that were saved and delivered, like the Egyptian lives that were destroyed, hang by a thread. Only by God’s grace—and not solely for our own merit—do we ourselves still dangle.

Keeping this synoptic overview in mind, we turn to the text.

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