Imagine that you are an Israelite in Egypt. You were born a slave. Your parents and their parents were also slaves. But that is about to change.
This man, Moses, has recently appeared with his brother Aaron insisting that God remembers the promise made to your ancestors long ago, and that the time has come for to go free from Egypt and travel to the land of Canaan to fulfill your destiny.
With a healthy dose of skepticism, you tentatively go along with the prediction. But after Moses and Aaron come back from their first trip to the palace, the Egyptians double your workload. Thus begins a series of plagues that strike the Egyptians but miraculously leave you and your fellow Israelites alone.
Nine plagues pass: blood, frogs, lice, and so on, all the way to darkness. The Egyptian people are beaten down. Rumors abound that Pharaoh’s court is in an uproar, with his closest advisors begging him to finally give in to Moses’ demands. But Pharaoh persists in his stubbornness.
Finally, Moses enters the Israelite slums and instructs you to get ready. There is going to be one more plague, and it is going to be a nasty one. God will release the Angel of Destruction against Egypt, and it is going to kill every first born creature, from the lowliest slave to the heir to Pharaoh himself. The Angel will strike at night, and you will be on your way out of Egypt the next morning.
He tells you how to get ready. On the tenth day of the month, each Israelite household must select an unblemished one-year-old lamb. Four days later, you have got to slaughter and roast it whole. You must collect the blood and use it to paint the doorposts and lintels of your homes. That way, God will protect your own first born from the Angel of Destruction, who tends to get carried away whenever he is released.
You’ve got until sunrise the next morning to eat the roast lamb. No leftovers are allowed. Anything you cannot manage to finish must be burnt up. That is why, for those of you with small households, Moses tells you to join together with other households to share.
By the way, you’ve got to eat it in your traveling clothes, loins girded and staff in hand. This is a Pesach to God.
And to make sure that you remember what is about to happen, you’ve got to celebrate this festival every year going forward throughout the generations.
Everything happens as Moses has said. Early the next morning, you are on your way out of Egypt, and you realize that you have not managed to gather any provisions for the journey. Other than the unleavened bread that you are carrying on your back, you and your fellow Israelites have not even packed a lunch!
What are you thinking about now? Possibly something along the lines of: “Should not Moses have given us more practical instructions instead of a ritual barbecue? Our time might have been better spent packing some granola bars.”
Rashi sees their lack of preparedness as exceedingly praiseworthy. Israel’s faith in God is so complete that they are willing to embark on a journey into the desert with no supplies whatsoever.
Rashi’s grandson Rashbam, always a practical commentator, disagrees. They did not prepare any provisions for themselves, he says, and consequently, they ended up complaining about the lack of food and water.
Given that Moses insisted they not spend their final night packing supplies for a trip into the desert, we have to assume that this final meal in Egypt was pretty important.
A midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:2) explains that the Israelites, living for centuries in Egypt, have been influenced by the dominant culture and have begun worshipping the local gods. As the time for the Exodus approaches, God turns to Moses and says, “As long as they continue to worship idols, they cannot be redeemed. You’ve got to tell them to change their evil ways and atone for their idolatry.”
So Moses instructs the Israelites to offer a lamb on the night before the redemption is to take place. Why a lamb? According to the midrash, the lamb is venerated and worshipped by the Egyptians. By offering it as a sacrifice to God and personally eating it themselves, the Israelites make a formal symbolic break with the practices of Egypt and make themselves worthy of redemption.
The medieval Spanish commentator, Nachmanides, believed in the power of astrology to both predict the future and to intervene in worldly events. It was forbidden for Jews to do so, but it worked. To the midrash, Nachmanides adds that the 10th of Nisan, when the Israelites are instructed to select the lamb, coincides with the ascension of the astrological sign of Aries, whose symbol is a ram. By offering a young ram as a sacrifice, the Israelites symbolically declare that their redemption is not due to the influence of any astrological phenomena, celestial beings, or other gods. God, the Lord of the Cosmos, who set all of the heavenly hosts in their places, is the One who personally redeemed Israel from Egypt.
This final meal is important psychologically for the Israelites. They need to make a break from their past enslavement to Pharaoh, so that they can embrace their future as a free people in service to God.
It is especially poignant that while they are conducting their sacred meal, the Angel of Destruction is being let loose upon the rest of Egypt, demonstrating once and for all that God is God and Pharaoh is not.
It is also significant that the Israelites share the meal together. Entire families sit down to eat the special food. Children ask their parents about the significance of what is happening. Those without large families, or who cannot afford their own lamb, are invited to join the households that are larger and more prosperous. Nobody is left out.
It must have been an incredibly emotional night, which is why the Torah instructs us to continue observing it throughout the generations. It describes that night as leil shimurim, “a night of vigil” for both God and the children of Israel. A night on which God protected the homes of our ancestors, God’s people, the Israelites.
Should the Israelites have spent their final night packing supplies for their journey? If they had, they would have left Egypt still slaves, still immersed in the corrupt culture that surrounded them. Their bellies might have been full for a while, but their spirits would not have been free. The Israelites needed a powerful symbolic action to begin the process of becoming the Jewish people. The first seder, conducted on the night before our ancestors left Egypt, was that action. It is an action that, to this day, we continue to reenact each year.