| Pesach

It is hard to argue that there is a more impactful and important rabbinic decree than that of kriat haTorah, the weekly public reading of the Torah. I shudder to think what would be of the study of chumash if not for this rabbinic law. It would likely suffer from the same fate as the rest of Tanach, that is to say, neglect.

While our shabbat Torah reading follows the order of the chumash, our Sages had to choose what should be read on the holidays. Presumably, the reason chosen for the reading this morning (Shemot 22:24 - 23:19), the second day of chol hamoed, is due to the mention of the shalosh regalim, the three pilgrim festivals and a very brief description of each that concludes the reading.

Yet a cursory glance at the reading renders this a rather weak explanation. If such were the case why is the reading some 26 verses for a mere three aliyot[1]. The Torah reading could easily have started some 13 verses later, cutting the reading in half while having no impact on mention of the shalosh regalim. Yet our Sages choose to begin the reading with “eem kesef talveh” the mitzva to lend money – interest free – to the needy. During the yearly reading we tend to view this as part of the larger section of civil law which is the overarching theme of parshat Mishpatim where this Pesach reading is taken from. Yet these “civil” laws are no less – and perhaps more – related to Pesach, and no less important – and perhaps more - than those of chametz and matza[2].

The primary message of the Exodus – one repeated no less than 36 times in the Torah – is to treat the stranger with great sensitivity “because we were strangers in the land of Egypt”. Treating the poor properly is no less – and perhaps more – important. Hence, our Sages choose to start the reading with the verse “If [when][3] you lend money to My people, to the poor amongst you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them” (Shemot 23:19). This opening parallels the opening of the seder with Ha lachma anya, inviting the needy to join and celebrate with us.

But there is more. The prohibition of charging interest on loans to the poor[4] is actually rooted in the Exodus from Egypt. “If your brother becomes destitute…you shall support him [whether] a convert or a resident, so that he can live with you. You shall not take from him interest or increase…You shall not give him your money with interest, nor shall you give your food with increase….I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a G-d to you” (Vayikra 25:35-38). G-d took us out of Egypt, we are told, so that we would lend money interest-free (see Rashi).

Even if we had begun the Torah reading at the opening of the parsha section[5] that contains direct mention of the shalosh regalim the link to Pesach would be stronger elsewhere than its direct mention. It is here we read “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Shemot 23:9). 

While the “Ten Commandments” tell us to observe Shabbat because G-d “rested” on the seventh day of creation, or because we were slaves in Egypt, the reading for chol hamoed teaches that “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labour, in order that your ox and your ass may rest, and that your home-born slave and the stranger may be refreshed”. Unlike the way our ancestors were treated we must ensure our workers get to observe a day of rest.

Let us conclude with a less obvious but no less important connection to Pesach found in this beautiful Torah reading. “You shall be a holy people to Me: you must not eat basar treifah, flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs” (Shemot 22:30). As to why treif meat is to be given to the dogs our Sages, quoted by Rashi, explain that "because the Holy One, blessed is He, does not withhold the reward of any creature, as it is said: 'But to all the children of Israel, not one dog will whet its tongue'” (Exod. 11:7). 

On the night of the Exodus the guard dogs that helped ensure no person escape Egypt were silent – not a bark was heard from them. If this is how we must treat our dogs how much more so must we help our fellow human.

[1] The fourth aliyah detailing the special sacrifices offered on Pesach is read from a second sefer Torah.

[2] The space constraints of this devar Torah does not allow a full examination of the many connections to Pesach, leaving us to highlight just a few.

[3] While the Torah uses the phrase im, if, implying extending such loans are voluntary our Sages asserted that in this case the if should be understood as when, making it an obligation to extend such a loan. As to why the Torah would not say what it means see here 

[4] The prohibition to lend interest applies equally to loans to the destitute and the wealthy  – even a commercial loan to a millionaire to develop a property for huge profit must in theory be given interest free. However, responding to changed economic circumstances,  our Sages developed a legal mechanism to effectively – if not formally – charge interest on commercial loans. Yet we dare not let this heter iska, permission to do business, displace interest free loans to the truly needy.

[5] We are used to dividing the sections of the Torah into chapters and verses and while there is a rabbinic tradition regarding the division of the verses, the chapter divisions are the work of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century. The Masoretic text has what are known as parshiotwhich are easily seen in any Torah scroll as they are followed by either nine blank spaces or empty space to the end of the line. With the exception of parshat Vayechi all Torah readings began at the start of a new parsha.