The Unifying Power of Mitzvot – First Day of Passover 5779

D'var Torah | Holidays

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of neo-Orthodoxy, left behind more than just a popular commentary on the Torah. He was a fecund essayist with much to say about all of Jewish life. In a lengthy essay entitled “The Jewish Year” he has an interesting slant on an often-overlooked piece of the narrative regarding the first Passover in Egypt. Of course, all recall how a lamb was to be set aside until the fourteenth day of the month, then slaughtered, blood applied to the doorposts and lintel, and the flesh roasted and eaten at the inaugural Passover “seder.” Some may even recall that the Torah (Exodus 12:4) allows for smaller households to gather together with larger households to eat the paschal lamb. But few, if any, would see in this communal celebration anything other than an instance of hospitality and kindness or a manifestation of esprit de corps.


To be sure, Hirsch acknowledges the validity of this view. He writes: “[God] thus bade them utilize the surplus of one house to supply the deficiency of its neighbor, to find support and supplement for the deficiency of one house in the surplus of the other.” However, it is the underlying philosophical idea that struck Hirsch as the more important. The instructions on how to observe this first Passover were not a matter of choice but of obligation on each and every Israelite. As such, each and every Israelite would strive to fulfill his (or her) obligation. By fulfilling this obligation each Israelite deepens his or her connection with God. Accordingly, religious duty is a spiritual imperative. And by performing a religious duty each Israelite would feel personally complete. In this model of ritual observance the individual is supreme. But, argues Hirsch, this is not the ideal.


For Jews the performance of a duty was to act as a unifying force. The mitzvot are not intended to be the elements in a personal scorecard allowing Jews to evaluate how they measure up in comparison with others. Jews are not supposed to be in competition, with the winners claiming they are closer to God than their opponents. Instead, the performance of mitzvot is supposed to be a way of bringing Jews together, just as Jewish households were brought together in Egypt for the first Passover.


It is ironic that Hirsch, who advocated Orthodox separatism, promotes communal unity. But that he was, to a degree, unable to follow his own advice does not make his observation any less significant.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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