Judeo-Christian creed values each human life. We often forget that this principle is not shared by everyone. A “rational” person treats people as the sum of their utilitarian value, and thus is mystified why anyone should care about what happens to Uighurs or Hutus or even Ukrainians.
But even as we can trace the idea of each life being valuable to Genesis and man created in G-d’s image and with a divinely-gifted soul, the text makes it clear that people need to be regularly reminded of how important it is to be considerate of all other people, from family members to nameless transients who might just be passing through.
There is a “breadcrumb” word in the Torah that links four distinctly different stories, showing us that there is a common connection between them – and I think it helps us see the korban pesach, the paschal lamb, in an entirely new light.
The four instances are as follows (the common word highlighted):
1: When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.
2: Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pull out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering.
3: When the ram’s horn pulls [sounds a long blast] they must approach the mountain.”
4: The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke;
This word, meshech, is not found anywhere else in the Torah. And in every one of the above verses, the word is either seemingly extraneous, or not-quite-right. These words jump out as odd choices if the goal is merely to relate a story. Which tells us that they are meant to be connected to each other.
The connection is quite something, because it shows us how we grow, and then how we institutionalize the lessons we were supposed to have learned when Cain killed Abel.
Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit – and out of the family. They do this from selfishness, and they do it without any consideration in advance for what their father – and G-d – would think about their act.
The paschal lamb is a corrective for what happens to Joseph. We are commanded to do it by G-d, and to fulfill the commandment in a household, with nobody allowed to leave all that night. Instead of casting someone out, the paschal lamb keeps everyone in.
When the brothers covered up for Joseph, they used animal blood on his coat to deceive their father. The paschal lamb’s blood is daubed on the door frame prior to living Egypt, to publicly declare our consideration for G-d’s commandment, to make a public stand, and to affiliate ourselves with a people trying to build a relationship with G-d, instead of how the brothers used blood to try to extinguish a relationship.
Indeed, Joseph’s extraction from the pit was the beginning of the Jewish people’s insertion into Egypt. And the paschal lamb forms a tidy bookend: used constructively, the blood marks the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt. Only those who performed the action with the paschal lamb were allowed to leave Egypt. When we offer the paschal lamb, we are admitting that the brothers were wrong, and we mark the corrective action on every doorpost.
There are other parallels between just these two cases as well: Joseph insists that his bones be taken back to Canaan, and we are expressly forbidden from breaking the bones of the paschal lamb (there is a hint here to resurrection). Both Joseph and the paschal lamb are investing in the timeless, in the eternal relationship between G-d and the people – which is in direct contrast to the brothers, who disposed of Joseph both to shed a relationship, and with a complete dearth of long-term planning.
The third verse, that of the ram’s horn “pulling” at Sinai brings G-d into the frame more directly, and makes the familial into the national. The paschal lamb was eaten within a household, all the people under one roof. The reference to the ram’s horn blowing (pulling) happened at a time when all the people were together – the nation replacing the family – under one roof, at the mountain.
Indeed, the word used to suggest the ram’s horn blowing is yovel, the same word as the Jubilee. The Jubilee is a Torah-decreed restoration of assets on a 50-year cycle, a legal means to ensure that everyone remained insecure, dependent either on continued connections to G-d or man (more on this here.) So the call of the ram’s horn is the way we know it is time to approach the mountain (as we did at Sinai), the announcement that we as a people are supposed to reach out to G-d. It is not just about a few brothers quarreling, or even each household coming together with the paschal lamb: the blowing of the ram’s horn at Sinai is a collective desire to connect to G-d.
The last example of this word for pull forms a perfect restorative for the story of Joseph. Whenever a dead body is found lying in the open, presumably because nobody cared enough to care for them, then it is a loss born by the closest town. They pay the cost of a young heifer, complete with declarations by the elders:
Absolve, G-d, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel. And they will be absolved of bloodguilt. Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of G-d.
This is a perfect contrast to what happened to Joseph! Instead of using the blood of an animal to hide one’s guilt for the blood of the innocent (Joseph), the Torah teaches us to do the opposite: always try to ensure that we take responsibility for everyone, even a random stranger who passes through. That responsibility is born through a combination of expense, embarrassment to the town, and the symbolic meaning of the slain heifer: each loss of life is a loss of potential.
In this way, the Torah subtly ties all four of these episodes together. Though each episode deals with a different animal (Joseph/Lamb/Goat/Heifer) we learn from this that it is not the specific animal that matters – it is any wasted life is a loss of opportunity, an echo of the damage the brothers did when they threw Joseph into that pit.
We learn that our goal should always be to build families, relationships between the generations, the relationship between man and G-d and even – in the case of the heifer – the relationship that we should have even with a random stranger who is in need.
This approach helps reinforce the idea that eating karpas at the beginning of the Seder reminds us of the multi-colored coat that Joseph wore, and which his brothers dipped in blood. Just as the brothers put us into Egypt, then it is the paschal lamb that helps bring us out. Caring for one another is the pathway to freedom.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith work]