This week's portion continues the story of Moses and Aaron's negotiations with Pharaoh to free the Israelite people. The brothers return to Pharaoh again and again, each time threatening another plague: locusts, darkness — and finally, the slaying of the first born. Each time, just as Pharaoh relents a little bit more, God hardens Pharaoh's heart, and he refuses to let the Jews go.
In the meantime, the Israelite people are awaiting the outcome of the meetings. Toiling as slaves by day, they organize to go by night. They make some preparations, borrowing objects of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors, but they do not prepare too much. They are still living their difficult lives in Egypt.
Suddenly, those lives are interrupted, as is the text, by ritual instructions from God. With Chapter 12, the Israelites are instructed to take time out to find a lamb without blemish, to sacrifice it, roast it and eat it according to very specific instructions.
"This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals at your feet and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly: It is a Passover offering to the Lord."
This image of complete readiness and hurried preparation stands in contrast to the careful act of following such specific instructions. With this ritual, God is saying: Hurry, but not so much that you forget me. Join with your household and your neighbors. Sacrifice to God and have a communal meal with your loved ones.
The Israelites do not spend this night before their departure packing; in fact, the text later states that they had prepared no provisions for the way, and had to grab their unleavened dough, still in its kneading bowls. Rather than making practical preparations, they turn their attention to performing this new ritual.
Chapter 12 goes on to explain how the blood of this sacrifice was spread on the doorposts to avoid the slaughter of the first-born children of the Israelites. It also repeats that this sacrifice and the eating of unleavened bread for seven days is a ritual to be observed for all time, for all the generations to come.
How Rituals Work
This is how Passover and all our religious rituals work. They are interruptions of our daily life and work. We are toiling, and prayer or Shabbat comes at its appointed time, and we stop and observe it. We are in the midst of our busy lives, and yet we clean for Passover, and prepare the seder and retell the story into the night. We are rushed and hurried on a daily basis, and there is so much work to do toward our own and others' freedom. And yet, we are instructed by God, over and over, to stop, to prepare a ritual and make it just so — to follow specific instructions.
We bring our families and neighbors together when we do this, and we are given time to pause, appreciating what we have and thanking God for it. This is what the Israelites did when they sacrificed the best lambs to God. This is what we do when we follow the instructions of this portion to eat the unleavened bread, to remember "that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt."
Our challenge is to approach each ritual as if it were as new as the Passover sacrifice, and to give it as much attention as finding a lamb without blemish.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.