In the final days of the enslavement in Egypt, just prior to the last of the ten plagues, G-d tells Moshe to instruct every Jew to prepare a lamb to be slaughtered and then eaten on the night preceding the long-awaited departure from Egypt.
The highly detailed account of exactly how this lamb was to be chosen, prepared, slaughtered and eventually eaten seems like a strange, and somewhat inappropriate interlude in the narrative. The moment has finally arrived for the fulfilment of G-d’s promise to Avraham some 400 years earlier. The Jewish people are finally about to break free of the physical and spiritual shackles of Egypt. And just as we are about to reach this climactic point…. G-d tells the Jewish people how to go about
preparing a sacrificial lamb, with every last detail including cooking instructions carefully spelled out in the Torah! What was the purpose of this Mitzvah? And what could possibly justify its seemingly inappropriate timing?
Rashi explains that G-d wanted to give the Jewish people the opportunity to earn the necessary merits to justify the impending redemption. In other words, G-d, so to speak, is about to produce the final ‘icing on the cake’ in this (literally) earth-shattering display of power to free the Jewish people. We, the recipients of this kindness, should at least do our bit to justify such a gift. Therefore, according to this explanation, the Jewish people, through carefully making sure to follow G-d’s instructions regarding the lamb, will be worthy of such impending Divine assistance.
However, even if we accept the logic that it made sense to force the Jewish people to earn their freedom (an earned gift is much more pleasurable than one for which one can take no credit), there remains a serious problem with this attempted explanation – Could we really be said to have earned the resultant gift of redemption? The Jewish people were steeped in the idolatrous ways of the Egyptians. Eighty percent of us never left Egypt. It would only be a matter of weeks before the ‘righteous’ few that did leave would be reverting back to idolatry by worshipping a golden calf. Despite all this, G-d has already performed a string of wondrous miracles as part of the process of freeing us. He is about to finish the job and lead us jubilantly, and laden with treasure, through the parting sea.
How could it possibly be that all of this was earned by the comparatively small gesture of a sacrificial lamb?
The answer to this question provides an invaluable insight into every area of our relationship to Mitzvot and spirituality generally.
Our task in this world is a pretty tough one …. To strive towards self-perfection. The Torah provides the framework within which to achieve that.
One would be forgiven for feeling a little despondent when faced with the gravity of such a task. How can one possibly have any real aspiration to overcome challenges and make light of difficult situations in a way which runs totally counter to one’s ‘natural self’?
This is not an unreasonable question. We are faced with difficulties wherever we turn. Naturally we are all tempted to opt out of the challenge, and live a life which appeals to our ‘default setting’ where sleep, food and physical pleasures are the goals we pursue. The notion of spiritual growth and working towards self-improvement all seems a bit beyond us, all the more so given that the task seems impossible to actually reach.
This problem, though, is based on a false assumption; that we are expected to take on the challenge unaided. In reality this is not true. G-d gave us the means to succeed, and wants us to succeed, and will help us along the way. Our task is simply to take on the challenge, and invest those talents and energies we do have in pursuing the goal. It is true that even with such efforts we are likely to fall short in key areas. But when we stretch ourselves as far as we can, and indicate our true desire for the goal, then we can ask G-d to help us reach beyond our natural limits.
This is no different from the behaviour of a loving parent towards a child. If a child says s/he really wants a certain toy, a parent will often give the child pocket money and encourage them to save up for the toy in question, fully aware that, given the pocket money on offer, this child will probably be a parent themselves before they can actually afford the toy. This is an intelligent means to gauging how serious the child is about wanting the toy. Once they’ve shown they really want it, the parent will happily buy it for them.
The same is true of our relationship to G-d. When we show we truly want something, G-d helps us to get it. For this reason, the mitzvah given just prior to the redemption from Egypt was totally appropriate. Of course it could never fully justify G-d’s immeasurable kindness in rescuing us and giving us our freedom. But it was enough to express our desire to take on the challenge, to justify G-d’s intervention on our behalf. It was the first step in the right direction.