The Greatest Mitzvah

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“And if a stranger shall sojourn among you and perform the Passover to God, according to the ordinance of the Passover he shall do. There shall be one law for you, for the convert and born Jew.” (Num. 9:14). 

Rashi comments: 

One might think that this verse implies that anyone who converts to Judaism must immediately bring the Passover offering (Ibid.)

One might think that if somebody converts in August, he must bring a Passover sacrifice at that moment. But Passover is not until next spring! How do we understand the Paschal Lamb in the summer?

Rabbi Israel Chait responded. He first proved that Passover is not integrally a “calendar” event, as those who were not able to bring the Passover sacrifice, Torah says they would bring it a month later (Ibid. 9:11). Rabbi Chait stated that the Paschal Lamb is a “mitzvah par excellence.” He cited the verse “withdraw and take” (Exod. 12:21) and Rashi’s comments (Exod. 12:6):

“Withdraw” your hands from idols and “take” unto yourselves a lamb of a divine command (Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 12:2:1).

Here we find Rabbi Chait’s meaning of the Paschal Lamb being a “mitzvah par excellence.” The general purpose of mitzvah is to redirect man away from fallacy towards truth. For example, the prohibition to steal redirects man from wrong ego feelings of deserving, towards recognizing others as equals. Lulav, tzedaka, tithes, Shmitta, Jubilee and freeing slaves redirect man from wrong feelings of ownership, towards recognizing God as the sole owner of everything. But some mitzvahs are greater than others: Tefillin redirects man away from the fantasy of many powers, towards recognizing the single God, who displayed His exclusive and unopposed control over the heavens and Earth throughout the 10 Plagues. After the last plague—firstborn deaths—tefillin was commanded (Exod. 13:9) which contains written accounts of Passover’s events and commands, acceptance of God alone, and the rejection of idolatry as God’s plagues exposed Egypt’s gods as lies.

Rabbi Pinchas Rosenthal cited support for Paschal Lamb’s great importance: 

If one acknowledges idolatry, it is as if he denies the entire Torah; and if one denies idolatry, it is as if he acknowledges the entire Torah (Sifrei Deut 54:4)

The Paschal Lamb (and circumcision) were the conditions for Israel's redemption from Egypt’s idolatrous culture. Those Jews were required to kill the Egyptian lamb god to demonstrate agreement with the most fundamental principle: God alone created and runs the universe; the lamb god is fallacy. Some commands focus on one point, whereas the fulfilling the Paschal Lamb command is akin to fulfilling the entire Torah; it is a “mitzvah par excellence.”

Rabbi Chait explained that “On account of this God took me out of Egypt” (Exod. 13:89) refers to the Paschal Lamb, as Rashi states. Meaning, the Paschal Lamb alone earned the Jews redemption. It is a “mitzvah par excellence.”

Passover and circumcision were required for the Jews to be redeemed from Egypt. They are the only positive commands for which failure to fulfill results in excision of one’s soul (karase). What severity do these two commands share? Rabbi Chait explained that circumcision targets the control over the instinctual drives, while the Paschal Lamb targets the recognition of fundamental truths. These two commands address man's two parts: his instincts and his intellect. Only the person controlling both parts of his nature is worthy of redemption.

One converting from idolatrous religion to Judaism—to knowledge—parallels the Egyptian Jews who converted and accepted God by rejecting Egypt’s lamb god as mere food. We might think that like the Egyptian Jews, the convert too must immediately bring the Paschal Lamb. But Torah says, “There shall be one law for you, for the convert and born Jew.” Therefore the convert cannot bring the sacrifice, except on the same date as the nation; Torah adherents require unified national practice. But the convert must immediately be circumcised because this is not a national matter like the Paschal Lamb, but an individual’s flaw that undermines a primary goal of Judaism, and like Abraham, must be remedied immediately upon following God.