Tzav: Many Neighbors, Many Seder Meals
by Rabbi David Hartley Mark
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months….[Each] of the Israelites shall take a lamb to a family….Your lamb shall be without blemish…from the sheep [or] the goats….They shall take…the blood and put it on the doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they…eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night, roasted over the fire, with matzot and bitter herbs. …This day shall you remember, and celebrate it as a Festival to the Lord…for all time. Seven days you shall eat matzote; on the very first day you shall remove chametz from your houses….
--Exodus 12:1-20 (translation mine)
This I beheld, or dreamed it in a dream: I came upon a bonfire off to the side of a plowed field. A group of men sat around; my first question was,
Where are the women? Our Seder always has lots of women, friends and relatives….
--but then, a husky-looking man with enormous hands—he was probably a farmer—called out to me, “Welcome, Stranger! Call me Eliah. What, are you too proud to join our humble Seder-Meal? Come and join us!”
I took my seat, off to the side, and looked around. What a motley crew there was—Israelites in their customary white robes with black stripes; here an Ammonite wearing a bright red, green, and black tunic; there, obviously a Canaanite, looking suspicious, but well attired in the striped, knee-length robe which they wore on festive occasions. And there, at the end—was that an Egyptian? I could easily distinguish him by his shaven, bald head, but mainly because of the golf-ball-sized orb of scented wax which was, already, partially melting, running down his ears, eyes, and nose.
“Well,” bellowed the Farmer, reaching out to the roasted lamb which adorned the table and tearing off a chunk, “Let us talk—I mean, converse. We never talk at all during meals on my farm; everyone just shoves in the food, burps, and returns to work. But tonight is different….”
“All very well for you, Eliah,” said a thin-looking cove sitting next to him, daintily gnawing a small lamb-bone, “but I have business to discuss. Your fields are cutting directly through my ancestral pasture-land. As a shepherd, I am losing out on fresh grass to feed my flocks.”
“Shush—not tonight, Father!” said an equally thin young man, who strongly resembled the Shepherd, “tonight we discuss only freedom, and the Exodus from Egypt. For our God passed over the houses of us Israelites, and smote the firstborn of the Egyptians….”
“Where are you getting your information about this festival, Youngster?” interrupted the Canaanite, “for I am here to tell you, you’re wrong.”
The young Israelite man bristled. “Who are you to discuss our sacred festivals, Canaanite? It is clear that God worked great miracles on our behalf. And how did your family survive the Great Conquest, when our great leader Joshua ben Nun led us over the Jordan River and conquered and burned your walled cities?”
“Excuse me,” said the Ammonite, “but no one ever conquered and burned my ancestral city of Ai. You Israelite folks—and I mean no offense, Friends—crept over the Jordan gradually, and established settlements in our land. I do not begrudge you your holdings; the land is big enough for all. Now, Yaray-Baal, my Canaanite neighbor, what have you to say about this boy’s declarations of his God taking the lives of the Egyptians, and the festival we are sharing?”
The Canaanite huffed. “I scorn this Israelite innovation, with invisible Gods and Egyptian plagues. During this early spring season, my people have always observed the death of god-king Baal, wielder of lightning and sender of thunder, who is killed by Mot, our god of death. When Baal passes on to the Underworld, the rain stops—it had better; a strong rain would kill my crops, standing in ear and ripening for the harvest!—but Baal revives and returns in the fall, with the end of the harvest. That is why our maidens dress in black, and sing the Song of Mot’s Killing of Baal:
I it was who confronted mighty Baal,
I who made him a lamb like a kid in the breach of my windpipe.
--and that, if you please, is the reason we have slaughtered, roasted, and will eat a lamb. We are symbolically re-creating Mot’s eating of Baal. It will stop the rains from pounding down on our produce. That is also why we are not allowed to break any of the bones of the animal—to do so could, Baal forbid, cause Baal to come forth in the fall with a broken leg or arm!”
Eliah the Israelite farmer boomed from the head of the table, “Peace, Friends, peace, I implore you! Please do not quarrel over the meaning of the lamb. The important thing is that we all get along, in this blessed land….”
“Will you let me speak?” asked the Egyptian, smoothing his white cotton kilt, “Since you Israelites lay claim to having defeated my people—despite there being no proof whatsoever in our Egyptian History—and I studied that subject well in the Royal Academy in Heliopolis, I will tell you!---I challenge you to prove that your invisible God ever freed you from our land. Oh, I daresay that you did escape; it has happened before, these minor slave-revolts. Our Army and Cavalry put them down with little trouble; misguided slaves are no more than human trash. I remain a proud Egyptian! I—”
“Calm yourself, Friend Amhotep,” soothed Eliah, “for we are, regardless of how or why, all together in this land. Let us eat the lamb-meat—”
“With bitter herbs,” said the Young Israelite, “and cakes of matzo.”
“Let all do as they wish,” said the farmer, spreading his arms wide, “ for peace is the most important value among us. Peace, peace, from far and near; let us agree to seek peace, and pursue it. Else we shall be battling all the time, until all lie dead, and the land becomes a prey to vultures and carrion crows.”
“You are right, as usual, Friend Eliah,” said Yaray-Baal the Canaanite, “So may I wish you and yours a most happy Passover?”
“I am uncertain as to whether I am ready to forgive—” said Amhotep the Egyptian.
“Drink some wine, then, and forget your plaguey history,” advised the Ammonite.
“And to you, good friends,” smiled the farmer, “Happy Mot-Baal Season! Happy Passover! Pass the matzo, young man….”