Pesach Musings on Our Jewish Mores

March 30th: Pesach
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

When we read the instructions for the first Passover meal, we usually focus on the communal killing of the lambs at sundown, the painting of the doorposts, and the hurried eating of the roasted lamb with matzah and bitter herbs. However, the Torah is also concerned about leftovers: “Do not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it in fire.” (Exodus 12.8-10)

 What do you do with leftovers of a holy, sacrificial meal? They are not in the same category as regular leftovers: this is holy food, and the Torah does not want them treated disrespectfully.

This concern is found in other passages throughout the Torah. Just last week, we read: “And the flesh of his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being shall be eaten on the day that it is offered; none of it shall be set aside until morning. If, however, the sacrifice he offers is a votive or a freewill offering , it shall be eaten on the day that he offers his sacrifice, and what is left of it shall be eaten on the morrow. What is then left of the flesh of the sacrifice shall be consumed in fire on the third day. If any of the flesh of his sacrifice is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable; it shall not count for him who offered it. It is pigul, an offensive thing, and the person who eats of it shall bear his guilt.” (Leviticus 7.13)

This same word, pigul / disgusting or offensive is found in Leviticus 19, the Holiness Code: “When you sacrifice an offering of well-being to the Lord, sacrifice it so that it may be accepted on your behalf. It shall be eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire. If it should be eaten on the third day, it is pigul—an offensive thing, it will not be acceptable. And he who eats of it shall bear his guilt, for he has profaned what is sacred to the Lord; that person shall be cut off from his kin.”

The concern here seems to be one of propriety—of treating the sacred food and the relationship it represents with God in a respectful and dignified manner. Also, in last week’s Torah portion, there was a concern with eating a sacrificial meal while in a state of ritual impurity: “Flesh that touches anything impure shall not be eaten (in a sacrificial meal); it shall be consumed in fire. As for other flesh, only one who is pure may eat such flesh. But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin. When a person touches anything impure, be it human impurity or an impure animal or any impure creature, and eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.” (Leviticus 7.19-21) The Torah wants us to know that leaving sacred food to rot in an empty house—after the Israelites departed Egypt, or eating three day-old leftover sacrifices, or eating the sacred foods while in a state of ritual impurity is not the proper way to conduct one’s relationship with the Divine.

As with any discussion of propriety or impropriety, there are levels or intensities to consider. Notice how the Torah applies three different levels of penalties in regard to these pigul / disgusting behaviors. The first level is simply informing the worshippers of proper and respectful behavior. Every society or group sets mores so that its members know how to behave in various situations. Many people want to be compliant and will follow the prescribed behavior once they know what it is. The second level of penalty is a bit more ambiguous: “that person shall bear his guilt.” Apparently, there is no immediate penalty enforced by the group, but the misdeed goes on the person’s cosmic account, and God will consider it when the time comes. The third level is intriguing because of its multivalent significance: “That person shall be cut off from his kin.” In the tribal wilderness experience, this punishment might have involved abandonment—in the middle of nowhere, with no water or provisions. In the more settled agrarian setting of the Talmud, this Biblical phrase was often understood as involving exclusion from reward in the next world—making it worse than death. In subsequent generations, cutting someone off involved the cherem or ban or excommunication. The communal authorities would ban the rule violator and instruct the rest of the community to cease and desist all contact with him/her.

In the modern world—where generally we do not ban people for incorrect ritual behavior, perhaps there is another way to look at this phrase. Perhaps, rather than seeing aberrant behavior as the reason for an expulsion, we can look at aberrant behavior as a way for an individual to cut him/herself off from an affiliation. Most people are intelligent enough to recognize social mores, and they have been trained in proper and respectful behavior. When they break with respectful behavior, is it possible that they are acting out their disagreements or discomfort and voluntarily removing themselves from the group?

This brings us back to Passover and the traditional story of the four sons: the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son, and the son who doesn’t even know what question to ask. The “wickedness” of the second son is based on the way the question is asked: “What do you mean by this celebration?” The Rabbis interpreted the word you as the child saying, “This is your celebration, and not mine.” The traditional answer is, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  By emphasizing the words me and I, the suggestion is that this child would not have been included.

For many traditionally minded Jews, moving away from communal mores is a great sin. One who does not commit fully or participate fully in the tribe is deemed a sinner or a traitor—hence the characterization of this second son as wicked.

 On the other hand, I think that many modern Jews experience a kind of ambivalence about Judaism and Jewish behaviors. Based on a variety of factors—both sociological and psychological, they feel less than 100% comfortable and wonder how they fit into Jewish Identity and the Jewish community. When the deviate from communal customs and mores, are they being wicked, or are they just uncomfortable?

I prefer to think of this second child as standoffish rather than wicked. The question, “What do you mean by this celebration?” could be an expression of this feeling of distance. My answer would be: “Only those who included themselves as members of the Israelite people experienced the Exodus. Would you have included yourself?” I would also add, “If you do not feel part of us today, please know that we miss you, and we hope that you come back soon.”