The Ultimate Sacrifice by Zachary Orenshein


In the moments before leaving Egypt, after many years of oppression, Hashem told Bnei Yisrael that there was one commandment they had to fulfill before they could be redeemed: the korban pesach. Why was this mitzvah so essential for the Jews to perform before their Exodus? Rav Amnon Bazak explains that the answer can be found in the intricate details of this mitzvah.

One obvious answer is that the animal used for the korban pesach needed to be a lamb (Shemot 12:3). Asking Bnei Yisrael to sacrifice lambs was a tremendous test of their faith in God because lambs were worshipped by the Egyptians. This mitzvah was both an ultimatum for Bnei Yisrael to reject the Egyptian deities, as well as a symbol of their trust in Hashem‟s ability to protect them from the Egyptians‟ wrath. Interestingly, while the requirement that the korban pesach be a lamb seems relevant to answering our question, Rav Bazak does not mention it. Rather, the reasons he gives are based on details which are often overlooked, but provide profound insight into the korban pesach's deeper purpose.

Rav Bazak explains that the korban pesach transformed each house in Bnei Yisrael in which it was offered. The korban pesach was a unique korban in that it was roasted in Bnei Yisrael‟s houses and not on an altar. Additionally, Bnei Yisrael put the lamb‟s blood on their doorposts and lintels – again, not on an altar – and there were no Kohanim involved in this avodah. Rather, Bnei Yisrael slaughtered the animals themselves without giving away a portion. What emerges from these anomalous qualities of the korban is that it required Bnei Yisrael to turn their homes into altars and themselves into Kohanim.

From this perspective another unique aspect of the korban emerges. By comparing the korban pesach to other korbanot, it becomes apparent that the korban pesach is a combination of the korban olah and the korban shelamim. The korban pesach is strikingly similar to the korban olah in that the sacrificed animal must be a male, under a year old, unblemished, either a sheep or goat, and burnt whole. However, there is a key difference between the two. The korban pesach is eaten, while the olah is totally burnt on the altar. This aspect of the korban pesach, in addition to the prohibition against leaving over any meat, makes the korban pesach seem more similar to the korban shelamim. Rav Bazak infers from this that the korban pesach is a combination of the olah and shelamim offerings.

Throughout Biblical Jewish history, the only korban that was brought was the olah. Kayin, Hevel, Noach, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov all brought offerings that were completely consumed by fire. Interestingly, among all the evidence that has been found of sacrifices in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, there are no records of people eating from the sacrifices to their deities. Rav Bazak explains the reason for this is that until the Jews left Egypt, people related to God primarily through fear. However, as the Jews were about to leave Egypt, Hashem introduced the concept of relating to Him through love as well.

As Thomas Foster, author of How to Read Literature Like a Professor explains, eating is an act of communion. Whenever two people sit down to eat together, they are either bonding or are meant to bond. Therefore, the korban shelamim model of burning some of the korban, and eating from it as well, represents this change in the relationship between  Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. It is not just one of distance and fear, but one of communion and love as well. With this in mind, it is of no surprise that when the olah and shelamim are brought together in the Torah, it is when Bnei Yisrael are preparing for the revelation of the presence of the Shechinah. In order to achieve the highest level of sanctity, Bnei Yisrael must have both the fear and the love that the two korbanot represent.

In the light of Rav Bazak's analysis, it is clear why bringing the korban pesach before Bnei Yisrael left Egypt was essential. First, it allowed them to transform their houses into altars, solely dedicated to serving Hashem. They were thus able to take the extraordinary religious phenomenon that occurred at  a national level and use it to strengthen themselves at a familial level. Once they accomplished that, the korban pesach allowed Bnei Yisrael to combine the olah aspect of fearing Hashem and the shelamim aspect of loving Hashem so they could be prepared for Divine revelation at Sinai and an elevated relationship with Hashem.

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