And G-d said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying:

“… Speak to the entire congregation of Israel … and they shall take for themselves, every man, a lamb for each family, a lamb for each house…. And you shall hold it in safekeeping until the fourteenth day of this month; and the entire community of the congregation of Israel shall slaughter it toward evening…. And they shall eat the meat that night, roasted by fire, with matzahs and bitter herbs….”

Exodus 12:1-8

Man is a lonely creature. No other inhabitant of G-d’s world harbors a sense of individuality as pronounced and as determined as that cultivated by the human being; no other creature perceives itself as apart and distinct of its fellows as we do.

Yet we are also the most social of creatures, weaving intricate webs of familial and communal relationships in our quest for validation and acceptance by others. Never content to merely be ourselves, we group by profession, class, nationality and other providers of a self-definition that transcends the personal.

If we are aware of a contradiction between our individual and communal identities, this does not lessen our need and striving for both. For while we are convinced that we are what we make of ourselves, we also know that alone, we are less than what we are and can be. In the words of the great sage Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”[1]

The Passover Offering

Hillel’s paradox confronts us in countless guises every day of our lives. In Hillel’s own life, it took the form of a question of Torah law that was instrumental in his ascension to the leadership of his people: Should the Passover offering be brought when the 14th of Nissan falls on Shabbat?

When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the primary vehicle of man’s service of his Creator were the korbanot (animal and meal offerings) offered on its altar to G-d. The korbanot fall under two general categories:

a) “Individual offerings” (korbanot yachid) brought by private citizens, such as the “generosity offering” brought as a donation, the “thanksgiving offering” brought to express one’s gratitude to G-d for a personal salvation, or the “sin offering” brought to atone for a transgression.

b) “Communal offerings” (korbanot tzibbur), such as the daily morning and afternoon offerings brought by the people of Israel as a whole from a fund to which every Jew contributed an annual half-shekel.

While most offerings belong completely to one class or the other, the Passover offering straddles both categories. On the one hand, it possesses certain features (such as the fact that it is purchased with private funds and eaten by those who brought it) which would define it as an individual offering; on the other hand, there are things about it that are characteristic of the communal offering (such as the fact that it is brought en masse by “the entire community of the congregation of Israel”[2]).

When the 14th of Nissan—the day on which the Passover offering is brought—falls on a Shabbat, the question of its categorization becomes crucial. Torah law forbids the bringing of individual offerings on Shabbat, but permits and obligates the bringing of communal offerings.[3] Should the Passover offering be regarded as an “individual offering” which cannot be brought on Shabbat, or as a “communal offering” whose obligation supersedes the prohibition of work on the day of rest?

The Talmud relates that one year when Nissan 14 fell on Shabbat, the leaders of the Sanhedrin (highest court of Torah law) were unable to resolve the question of whether the Passover offering should be brought. Hillel, a scholar newly arrived in the Holy Land from Babylonia, demonstrated that the communal aspect of the Passover offering is its more dominant element, meaning that it should be offered also when its appointed time coincides with Shabbat. In recognition of his superior scholarship, the leaders of the Sanhedrin stepped down and appointed Hillel as their head.[4]

Isaiah and Jeremiah

Echoing Moses’ description of the Exodus as a time when G-d “took a nation from the womb of a nation,”[5] the prophet Ezekiel describes the event as the “birth” of the Jewish people.[6] Before the Exodus, the Jews shared a common ancestry, culture and heritage, but they did not constitute a nation; on that first Passover, the entity “Israel” was born.

Passover can thus be seen as representing the ascendancy of the communal over the individual—the point at which numerous distinct personalities surrendered to a common mission and identity. Indeed, as Hillel showed, in the Passover offering it is the communal element which dominates and determines the halachic status of the korban.

So why isn’t the Passover offering a full-fledged communal offering like the others? Why is it a hybrid of the individual and the communal, in which both elements find expression and vie for supremacy? Because the purpose of forging many individuals into a single people is not the obliteration of their individuality, but the inclusion of each member’s distinct personality within the communal whole. The community is not only a vehicle for the transcendence of the limitations of individuality and the attainment of goals unachievable by ego-encumbered individuals; it is also the framework within which each individual might optimally develop and realize his personal best.

Our relationship with G-d includes both “individual offerings,” which represent the devotion of our individual resources to G-d, as well as “communal offerings,” which express the surrender of our individuality to our communal mission. But the Passover offering, which played a formative role in our birth as a people, must belong to both categories.[7]

As the offering that marks the birth of the nation Israel, the Passover offering must express our commonality as G-d’s people; this is indeed its dominant theme. But it must also express the truth that even as we set aside our differences to devote ourselves to a common goal, our individual strengths and vulnerabilities continue to define us as distinct and unique entities. It must express the truth that the paradox of individuality and community is at the heart of who and what we are, and that the tension between these two strivings is a necessary and desirable component of our relationship with G-d.

Even at the very end of days, when the whole of human history culminates in the divinely perfect and harmonious age of Moshiach, this duality will continue to define our identity and nationhood. The ultimate redemption will be a communal redemption, when, as the prophet Jeremiah describes, “A great community shall return here”[8]; but it will also be the realization of Isaiah’s vision of a time when “You shall be collected, one by one, O children of Israel.”[9]

Based on the Rebbe’s talks during the month of Nissan, 5737 (1977)[10]

Adapted from the teachings of the Libavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber

[1]. Ethics of the Fathers 1:14.

[2]. Exodus 12:6.

Indeed, we find the Passover offering alternately described as an individual and a communal offering—cf. Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 6:1; Tosafot, Pesachim 70b, s.v. ha vadai; Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah, introduction to Seder Kodashim; Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Preparation of the Offerings 1:3; and sources cited in Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, p. 105, notes 15 and 19).

[3]. Talmud, Temurah 14a; see Likkutei Sichot, ibid. (text and notes).

[4]. Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 6:1.

A communal offering can be brought on Shabbat only if it must be brought on that very day—e.g., the tamid offering, commanded by the Torah to be brought every morning and evening, and the mussaf offerings specifically designated to be brought on certain dates. A communal offering that has no designated time (e.g., the par he’elem davar shel tzibbur, brought in atonement for a transgression erroneously committed by the entire people) may not be brought on Shabbat (see sources cited in previous note). The Passover offering, which the Torah instructs to be brought on Nissan 14, would therefore meet the criteria for a Shabbat offering if it is regarded as a “communal offering.”

Hillel alludes to this factor as well in his above-quoted saying. The full saying, as it appears in Ethics of the Fathers, reads: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Here are all the issues in the halachic question which raised Hillel to the presidency of the Sanhedrin: a) the individualistic aspect of the Passover offering (“If I am not for myself, who is for me?”); b) its communal element (“And if I am only for myself, what am I?”); c) the fact that it must be brought at a specific time (“And if not now, when?”).

[5]. Deuteronomy 4:34.

[6]. Ezekiel 16.

[7]. More specifically, the first Passover offering, which was brought by the Jewish people while they were still in Egypt, was predominantly an “individual offering,” while the later Passover offerings belong more to the “communal” category. In Egypt, each family slaughtered its offering, and performed all the rituals associated with it, in its own home; thus the blood of the offering was sprinkled on “the two sideposts and the upper doorpost of the homes in which it will be eaten” (Exodus 12:7). Beginning with the second Passover, observed a year later in the Sinai Desert, all Jews brought their Passover offerings to the Sanctuary to be slaughtered there and have its blood sprinkled upon the Sanctuary’s altar. Indeed, the first Passover offering was brought on a weekday (as per the Talmud, Shabbat 87b, the Exodus occurred on a Thursday, meaning that the Passover offering was slaughtered on Wednesday afternoon), while the second Passover offering was actually brought on Shabbat (that year, the 1st of Nissan was a Sunday (Talmud, ibid.), meaning that Nissan 14 was Shabbat).

But even the first Passover offering had certain communal characteristics—the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 19:5) describes how all Jews ate from Moses’ Passover offering, and the above-quoted verse describing it as an offering brought by “the entire community of the congregation of Israel” speaks of that first Passover offering brought in Egypt. On the other hand, even after it became a predominantly “communal offering” in the year after the Exodus, the Passover offering retained many of its “individualistic” elements, such as the fact that it is eaten by each family or family group at their own family seder.

[8]. Jeremiah 31:7.

[9]. Isaiah 27:12.

[10]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XVIII, pp. 104-116.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
The Meaningful Life Center