The wrong message

The wrong message

A rabbi in Israel is up in arms.

Newspapers, notes Rabbi Zalman Melamed, are filled with advertisements for kosher-for-Pesach trips to just about anywhere in the world you can think of — and he cannot think of a Pesach activity that is more unsuitable. Israeli Jews, he says, should stay in the Land of Israel during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. They should not be encouraged to go darting around the world.

His complaint is not about newspapers accepting the advertising; it is about the trips abroad themselves. He does not believe that such trips should be available. It sends the wrong message.

"During the holiday," Melamed wrote in a bulletin published by the yeshiva of which he is dean, "we call on people to be close to the holy sites, to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem, and to not drift away from holiness, God forbid."

The school is the religious Zionist-oriented Yeshiva of Beit El, which is located on the west bank and which owns and operates the Arutz Sheva radio station, for which Melamed is board chairman. These two facts are probably enough to turn some people off to the rabbi’s message. After all, even he does not dispute that his gripe is politically motivated. He wants Israelis to spend at least part of the festival in Jerusalem as a form of protest.

"Talks regarding the division of the holy city of Jerusalem, which stem from weakness and lack of faith, obligate us to strengthen our bond" with the capital, he wrote in the bulletin.

Others may be turned off to what he says on this matter because of other things he has said. For example, last spring, he made this startling prediction: "Next year," he said, "we will all go up freely to the Temple, which will be built, with the ashes of the red heifer, without disagreement and without questions."

Melamed does and says things that drive those on his political left up the wall; that is a given. This may make him wrong-headed in their eyes, but it does not make his underlying complaint wrong. He is correct in viewing negatively the practice of encouraging Israelis to leave the Land of Israel in order to spend the festival in far-off lands — and especially those Israelis for whom Pesach is a serious observance

Frankly, he did not go far enough. Today, there are all manner of kosher-for-Pesach jaunts to hither and yon that are available to Jews in the diaspora. Israel is one of those destinations, to be sure, but it should be the only destination. Facilitating travel to any other location makes no sense.

Numbers 9:1-13 explains why (although I am not sure Melamed would agree). It was "the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt," and Moses is instructed by God to make the annual observance of Pesach a fixed rule. He dutifully so commands the Israelites, "and they offered the Pesach sacrifice in the first month, on the 14th day of the month, at twilight, in the wilderness of Sinai. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses, so the Israelites did."

Not everyone, however, was able to observe the commandment.

"There were some men who were unclean by reason of a corpse and could not offer the Pesach sacrifice on that day," the text explains. "Appearing that same day before Moses and Aaron, those men said to them, ‘Unclean though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be prevented from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?’"

It was a good question and Moses inquired of God on their behalf.

"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Speak to the Israelite people, saying: When any of you or of your descendants who are defiled by a corpse or are on a long journey would offer a Pesach sacrifice to the Lord, they shall offer it in the second month, on the 14th day of the month, at twilight. They shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and they shall not leave any of it over until morning. They shall not break a bone of it. They shall offer it in strict accord with the law of the Pesach sacrifice.’"

God had more to say, however. "But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the Pesach sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the Lord’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt."

It follows that anyone who deliberately and without good reason leaves the Land of Israel at the "set time" for the Pesach offering is included among those who "shall bear his guilt."

Each of the three pilgrimage festivals has specific offerings attached to it. Neither Sukkot nor Shavuot, however, offers a raincheck on the observance. Pesach was different. The offering had to be brought, either at the appointed time or exactly one month later, on the day we call Pesach Sheni, the "second Pesach."

That the Torah specifically includes being "on a long journey" as a reason for the inability to celebrate Pesach at the correct time clearly indicates that the festival could be celebrated only in the Land of Israel — at least in the days when the Tabernacle and the First Temple stood. The only exceptions to that rule were the 40 years that Israel spent in the wilderness prior to the conquest of the Land.

This insistence, of course, became impractical once the diaspora grew. From the destruction of the First Temple until today, the majority of Jews have lived outside the Land. If Pesach could not be celebrated in some way wherever Jews lived, it would disappear. That was not an option.

The Sages of blessed memory rightfully came up with ways for Pesach to be celebrated outside the Land, but that does not change the fact that the preferred celebration was — and continues to be — inside the Land. Israel remains the preferred country and Jerusalem, because it was where the Pesach offerings were brought, remains the preferred city — not because it is a political statement, but because it is a matter of faithfulness to God’s word.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of the Conservative synagogue Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and an instructor in the UJA-Federation-sponsored Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of the Hebrew University. He is the editor of Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.