Part Three: Rediscovering Our People’s Identity
The Apostate Who Came to the Passover Seder



In the previous letter, we began to discuss how our tradition views the identity of a member of our people who willfully abandoned the Torah – our Covenant with Hashem. Such an individual is called a meshumad – an apostate.


As we learned, the meshumad is still considered to be an Israelite. We also mentioned that this individual can lose certain privileges that the members of our people are normally entitled to. In this letter, we shall discuss one of those privileges.


Dear Friends,


Although a meshumad has willfully rejected the Torah path, he may still desire to celebrate aspects of Passover for sentimental or nationalistic reasons. During the biblical period, when we had the Sanctuary, the highlight of the Passover Seder was the eating of the Passover offering which commemorates our people’s liberation from the physical and spiritual bondage of Egypt. Both men and women are to fulfill the mitzvah to eat from this offering. The first Passover offering was eaten in Egypt, on the night before the Exodus; however, the obligation to have Passover offerings in the future began when we arrived in the Promised Land. Moshe therefore proclaimed to our people before the Exodus the following message regarding the “service” of the Passover offering:


“It will be that when you come to the Land that Hashem will give you, as He has spoken, you shall observe this service.” (Exodus 12:25).


Rashi, in his commentary on the above verse, writes:


“The verse made this service contingent upon their coming to the Land, and they were not obligated to offer the Passover offering in the wilderness, except for one Passover offering which they made in the second year after the Exodus, and that was by the explicit Divine word.”


According to the Torah, we are not allowed to give a meshumad any portion from the Passover offering. The source for this prohibition is found in the following verse from the Torah portion of this Shabbos, where Hashem says to Moshe and Aharon:


“This is the decree of the Passover offering: any ben nachor may not eat from it.” (Exodus 12:43)


Who is the ben nachor who is forbidden to eat from the Passover offering? The term ben nachor can be translated as “stranger” or “estranged one.” The ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, known as Targum Onlelos, translates the words “any ben nachor” as “any Israelite who became a meshumad.”


Rashi, in his commentary on the above verse, explains the words “any ben nachor” in the following manner: “Both a Gentile and an Israelite who has become a meshumad are meant.” Rashi also describes the meshumad as, “one whose deeds have become alien to his Father in Heaven.”


The source of Rashi’s explanation is found in the Mechilta, an ancient midrashic commentary on the Book of Exodus. In its commentary on the above verse, the Mechilta cites a verse in the Book of Ezekiel which reveals that the term ben nachor can refer to an apostate from our people. This verse mentions certain categories of Kohanim that are forbidden to serve in the Temple, and it proclaims the following Divine message:


“Any ben nachor of uncircumcised heart or uncircumcised flesh shall not enter My Sanctuary – any ben nachor among the Children of Israel” (Ezekiel 44:9).


On the first night of Passover, the People of Israel in the Land of Israel are to celebrate the Festival of Freedom through eating the Passover offering. Why, however, should the ben nachor –  the apostate – be denied the privilege of eating from the Passover offering? The answer will begin with a review of the following teachings regarding the deeper meaning of human freedom:


The Torah reveals that the human being was created to serve the compassionate and life-giving Divine purpose, as it is written:
“Hashem God took the human being and placed him in the Garden of Eden to serve it and to guard it.” (Genesis 2:15)
“To serve it and to guard it” – This two-part mandate reveals the altruistic purpose of the human being’s creation. And the following ancient teaching reveals that this two-part mandate expresses the altruistic purpose of all the mitzvos in the Torah:
The Divine mandate to “serve” the Garden represents mitzvos aseh – the mitzvos of the Torah which call upon us to engage in actions which nurture and elevate the world, including ourselves. And the Divine mandate to “guard” the Garden represents mitzvos lo sa’asay – the mitzvos of the Torah which prohibit actions which damage and degrade the world, including ourselves. (“Tikunei Zohar” 55)
When we serve Hashem through the mitzvos of the Torah, we gain the freedom to become the altruistic human beings we are meant to be.

This insight can help us to understand why the apostate is denied the privilege of eating from the Passover offering which commemorates our freedom. The Passover offering not only commemorates our physical freedom; it also commemorates the beginning of our collective journey to Mount Sinai, where we received the Torah that gives us spiritual freedom – the freedom to serve the compassionate and life-giving purpose of Hashem through the path of mitzvos. In fact, a reference to the Revelation at Mount Sinai is found in Hashem’s message to Moshe, at the burning bush, when our people were still enslaved in Egypt. This bush was on the very mountain where our people would later receive the Torah, and Hashem told Moshe: “When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12). Hashem later told Moshe to tell Pharaoh:


“My firstborn child is Israel. So I say to you: Send out My child that he may serve Me” (Exodus 22, 23).



 As we discussed in Part One of this letter, we became the people of Hashem at Mount Sinai when we accepted upon ourselves the responsibility to serve Hashem through fulfilling the mitzvos of the Torah. The Exodus was the first stage of the journey to this spiritual goal, and we commemorate this initial stage through the Passover offering. The meshumad, however, rejects this spiritual goal of the Exodus, for he does not wish to join us in serving Hashem. He is therefore denied the privilege of eating from the Passover offering.


A convert who joins the People of Israel through accepting the path of the Torah can eat from the Passover offering, as it is written: “When a convert sojourns among you, he shall make the Passover offering for Hashem” (Exodus 12:48). According to this Torah law, a convert, whose ancestors were not enslaved in Egypt, has a special Passover privilege which an apostate, whose ancestors were enslaved in Egypt, is denied! How are we to understand this paradox?


Through rejecting the spiritual goal of the Exodus, the apostate is still spiritually enslaved; thus, he cannot partake of the Passover offering which commemorates our total freedom – both physical and spiritual. The convert, however, identifies with the spiritual goal of the Exodus, for the convert has accepted the Divine Teaching that gives us spiritual freedom. It is therefore fitting that the convert partake of the sacred Passover offering which commemorates and celebrates our total freedom.


Have a Good, Sweet, and Strengthening Shabbos,

And a Chodesh Tov – A Good Month!

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Teachings and Comments:


1. The Sefer HaChinuch, a classical work on the Torah’s mitzvos, explains that one of the reasons for the mitzvah of the Passover offering is because “it is a sign and a commemoration that at that time we came to shelter under the wings of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence).


2. The mitzvah to have the Passover offering is called a “service”; thus, Moshe proclaimed the following message regarding the Passover offering:


“It will be that when you come to the Land that Hashem will give you, as He has spoken, you shall observe this service.” (Exodus 12:25).


The meshumad, however, does not wish to join us in serving Hashem; thus, he cannot eat from the Passover offering of service.


3. The following is a Passover definition of freedom: When we dedicate ourselves to the altruistic purpose of our creation and thereby become the servants of Hashem, we are released from the bonds which prevent us from becoming who we are meant to be.


Rabbi Irving Bunim, a noted Torah educator of the 20th century, adds the following related insight:


“Whether mankind likes it or not, the realization grows that an uncommitted life, free of any higher goals or responsibilities, brings a bondage worse than slavery. The Eastern poet (from India), Rabindranath Tagore, moved intuitively toward this conclusion when he wrote: ‘I have on my table a violin string. It is free...But it is not free to do what a violin string is supposed to do – to produce music. So I take it, fix it in my violin, and tighten it until it is taut. Only then is it free to be a violin string.’ ” (Ethics from Sinai by Irving Bunim, 6:2)


4. Why is the mitzvah of the Passover offering contingent upon our living in the Promised Land? I would like to suggest the following reason: It is only in the Land that we can fully experience both physical and spiritual freedom. 


How does the Land enable us to fully experience spiritual freedom? We gain spiritual freedom through fulfilling all the mitzvos of the Torah; moreover, the place where we can fulfill all these mitzvos is in the Land, for as we previously discussed, there are a number of mitzvos which can only be fulfilled in the Land. In this spirit, Moshe gave our people the following message when we stood at the border of the Promised Land.


“See, I have taught you statutes and social laws which Hashem, my God, has commanded me, so that you may act accordingly in the midst of the Land” (Deuteronomy 4:5).  


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