The strangest thing about that first Passover was living with the lamb for four days.
There are two kinds of Passover, you see. There’s the one we celebrate every year with a Seder. Lots of food, lots of storytelling, remembering the Exodus. Very nice.
But before we began this tradition of remembering Egypt, we actually had a Passover in Egypt, the night we left. This one had no Seder, no matzah, no four cups of wine. Instead, we just had a lamb. And it is from this ceremony that Passover gets its name, because we slaughtered that lamb, painted its blood on our doors, and that was the sign that God should pass over our houses as the final plague was unleashed on the Egyptians. Meanwhile, we ate the rest of the lamb, hurriedly, all dressed to go, stuffing the food down with one hand and holding our walking staffs in our other. It was a strange and terrifying night.
But the strangest thing of all didn’t happen during the night of Passover itself. For there is a major but often overlooked detail in the original description of that ceremony. God says:
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month, each of them shall take a lamb to their family, one lamb per household…You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of the month, and then the assembled congregation shall slaughter it at twilight. (Exod. 12:3,6)
ג דַּבְּרוּ, אֶל–כָּל–עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר, בֶּעָשֹׂר, לַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה: וְיִקְחוּ לָהֶם, אִישׁ שֶׂה לְבֵית–אָבֹת—שֶׂה לַבָּיִת… ו וְהָיָה לָכֶם לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת, עַד אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר יוֹם לַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה; וְשָׁחֲטוּ אֹתוֹ, כֹּל קְהַל עֲדַת–יִשְׂרָאֵל—בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם.
Do you see the timeline there? The lamb is slaughtered on the fourteenth; but it is taken into the house on the tenth. And then you are to watch over it. For four days.
So you live with the lamb. It’s right there, in your living room, baa-ing and clomping around, looking at you with its beady, black eyes, glazed over in stupid confusion. And you watch and wait. You eat your meals, you go to sleep and wake up, and all the while, the lamb is right there with you.
I imagine that these four days with the lamb must have been every bit as memorable as the Passover night itself. But what was the purpose of this ritual, and what has it got to do with the Exodus?
We turn first, as always, to Rashi, and it looks like he has an answer:
For what reason did God command that the lamb be taken four days prior to its slaughtering, which was not commanded for the Paschal lamb of future generations? …The time had come, said God, to fulfill the oath that I swore to Abraham, that I will redeem his children. But they were not engaged in any commandments for which they could merit being redeemed… Therefore God gave them two commandments, the blood of the Passover lamb and the blood of circumcision, for they also circumcised themselves that same night.
ומפני מה הקדים לקיחתו לשחיטתו ארבעה ימים מה שלא צוה כן בפסח דורות… הגיעה שבועה שנשבעתי לאברהם שאגאל את בניו ולא היו בידם מצות להתעסק בהם כדי שיגאלו… ונתן להם שתי מצות דם פסח ודם מילה, שמלו באותו הלילה
The logic here is that God wants to redeem the Children of Israel, to keep a promise made to Abraham. But it would be better if these people had done something themselves to deserve the redemption. So God gave them some commandments they could do in the meantime, to build up some credit, and show that they were worthy of salvation.
Well, that’s fine, but Rashi never really answered the question he started with! Why the four days?!
Perhaps we could say, by extension, that these four days of living with the lamb were also building credit for the Israelites. The watching itself was like an act of service. The inconvenience was a burden, so it showed devotion to God.
But that is a bit of a stretch – and Rashi himself never suggests this.
A better answer emerges if we start by asking a different question: Why use a lamb to begin with?
Here, it is Maimonides who best articulates the classic explanation and – typical of his approach – he sees this ritual as a symbolic rejection of surrounding idolatrous practices:
The Egyptians worshipped Aries, the zodiac sign of the lamb. That is why they forbade their slaughter, and despised shepherds… For this reason we were commanded to slaughter a lamb on Passover and streak its blood on the doors in Egypt – to cleanse ourselves of these ideas and publicly demonstrate our rejection of them. (Guide for the Perplexed, Book 3, Ch. 46)
So the slaughter of the lamb is actually the execution of an Egyptian God, and the blood on the door is a way of shoving it in their faces. Pretty gruesome, but it does fit the context, demonstrating the supreme triumph of God over the Egyptian power structure and the impotence of Egyptian deities to defend it.
Now the French medieval commentator, the Hizkuni, will build on this imagery, and give us a reason for the four days of guarding the lamb:
“Until the fourteenth day” – So that the Egyptians would see their revered god tied up shamefully and disgracefully in the homes of the Israelites and would hear the sheep squealing with no one to save them.
עד ארבעה עשר יום כדי שיראו המצרים את יראתם קשורה בבשת ובזוי בבתי היהודים וישמעוה צועקת ואין מושיע לה
Now it’s more than just an affront to Egyptian sheep-worshippers; it’s actually a long, drawn-out way of torturing them. Think of their horror as they watched their gods being walked through the streets, and led into the houses of their enemies. Think of the anguish as they listened, for four days, to the sounds of their beloved beasts bleating out of the windows. The Israelites watched the lambs inside, so that their former masters would have to suffer outside in disgrace.
It’s all very brutal. But then again, this was an uprising, after 400 years of slavery. The Israelites had been viciously persecuted for so long, perhaps we can have some understanding for the rage that must have exploded forth when their freedom finally came.
Except that this sort of justification doesn’t really apply here. Because it was God who commanded this ritual, not the Israelites. God wanted the lamb slaughtered, and God wanted it penned up for four days prior.
So if all of this was meant to psychologically terrorize the Egyptians, it may have made for a powerful religious statement – but doesn’t it also feel a little sadistic? The Egyptians have already witnessed the might of God during the plagues; do they really also need a prolonged and agonizing form of religious education?
But then, maybe this education wasn’t only for them. If we go back to the rabbis of the Midrash, we find a bolder interpretation. They begin with the same idea – the lamb as a deity – but suggest that the Egyptians weren’t its only followers:
You will find that the Israelites, when they were in Egypt, has also become idol-worshippers, and they would not forsake it… So the Holy Blessed One said to Moses: As long as the Israelites worship the Egyptian gods, they will not be redeemed. So go and say to them, forsake your evil ways, and atone for your idolatry. As it is written, “Pull back and take a lamb…” (Exod 12:21), meaning: pull your hands back from idolatry and take the lamb and slaughter the gods of Egypt to make the Passover offering. (Exodus Rabbah 16:2)
וְכֵן אַתָּה מוֹצֵא לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּשֶׁהָיוּ בְּמִצְרַיִם הָיוּ עוֹבְדִין עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים וְלֹא הָיוּ עוֹזְבִין אוֹתָהּ… אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמשֶׁה כָּל זְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹבְדִין לֵאלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם לֹא יִגָּאֵלוּ, לֵךְ וֶאֱמֹר לָהֶן שֶׁיַּנִּיחוּ מַעֲשֵׂיהֶן הָרָעִים וְלִכְפֹּר בַּעֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (שמות יב, כא): מִשְׁכוּ וּקְחוּ לָכֶם, כְּלוֹמַר מִשְׁכוּ יְדֵיכֶם מֵעֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים, וּקְחוּ לָכֶם צֹאן, וְשַׁחֲטוּ אֱלֹהֵיהֶם שֶׁל מִצְרַיִם וַעֲשׂוּ הַפֶּסַח
According to this midrash, it was we who were still attached to the lambs. It was we who needed to slaughter the thing we worshiped. We had to purge ourselves of the idols we held onto through our suffering, in order to turn and embrace the God of our salvation.
And so the four days was for us as well. Four final days to look upon this thing we thought we needed, and prepare to let it go. Four days to sit with this creature we thought was a god, and to come to see it as a beast. Four days to reflect on who we had become through this ordeal, and what parts of ourselves we would have to leave behind in order to be free.
The message of the Passover lamb, then, is that freedom is much more than physical liberation. Freedom requires self-awareness, and a willingness to change. And freedom requires sacrifice.
What are you holding on to? What falsehoods are you afraid to let go of? Take some time. Sit with these parts of yourself. Say goodbye to the things you loved, the things you thought would save you.
And then take up the knife, and cut yourself free.