By Rabbi Joel Levy
The first communal act of the Israelite nation is described in Exodus 12, and forms part of Parshat HaChodesh, the Torah reading before Rosh Chodesh Nissan, designed to get us in a festive mindset:
“Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying: On the tenth day after this new-moon they are to take themselves, each-man, a lamb according to their father’s house, a lamb per household. But if there be too few in the house for a lamb, he is to take it, he and his neighbour, by the computation according to the number of people…”
Each family must select the lamb for their Pesach offering which will be slaughtered on the day before the Israelites escape Egypt. It is interesting that this first communal act is not a group action, but instead calls upon each family unit to perform a ritual act. The rules for preparing the first Pesach offering differ from the rules for subsequent years, but a close reading of these verses about the first Pesach offering can teach us much about Pesach and the life of community.
The Mechilta, the earliest rabbinic Midrash on the book of Exodus, draws a number of lessons from this passage. Firstly, it notes that “A lamb per household” refers to the nuclear family, rather than the extended family. Secondly, “he is to take it, he and his neighbour” suggests that each person can choose the size and composition of the group with which they will eat the offering. A person can invite friends, or prepare and eat in isolation. There is no preference here for large families over those who choose to live alone. Finally, “by the computation according to the number of people” affirms that this mitzvah is not gender specific. This is not a man mitzvah – it is a person mitzvah. Everyone is included and the Pesach offering is made for absolutely every Jew.
Moses and Aaron speak to the whole congregation of Israel, but the acts they call upon them to perform are to occur in private, in the home. This is a universal obligation; applicable to every single Israelite, but enacted in small units. Jewish communal life begins with home rituals. The ideal size of the group for these home rituals is set by the participants themselves. You can join together into larger groups, or act and eat alone. Each person must decide for themselves.
There are parallels between the Mechilta’s reading and the contemporary situation.
The Mechilta describes a combination of maximal inclusion and minimal judgement on how people choose to participate. There is great scope for choice around the Pesach Seder with dozens of books offering new ideas for personalising it. There is a universal call to participate in a Seder but the rituals themselves occur in private and are therefore not open to communal censor and interference. The universal nature of the obligation means that everyone needs to be offered the opportunity to participate in the Seder of their choice. A successful community at this time will be one that facilitates everyone finding a place at a Seder that meets their individual needs, whether that is a Seder that lasts all night, full of intense intellectual debate, or one that is child-centred with oodles of singing and acting, or something much more minimalist, with a minimum of fuss and more than a pinch of scepticism. We need to put at least as much time and effort into preparing the contents of our Seder as we will into preparing the food and then to get on the phone and start inviting!
Rabbi Joel Levy serves as Rosh Yeshiva of the Conservative Yeshiva and the rabbi of Kol Nefesh.