(originally published on kckollel.org)
Then you shall eat the meat on that night, roasted with fire; with unleavened bread (matzot) and bitter herbs are they to eat it. You may not eat of it half-cooked and also not boiled in water, only roasted with fire, its head with its legs and with its innards. (Shemot 12:8)
Modern-day Jewish philosopher Rabbi Nathan-Lopes Cardozo notes that while on all other occasions, G-d leaves it up to the Jew to decide whether he will eat his food boiled or roasted, on the first night of Pesach, He specifically commanded us to roast the Passover offering. Why, asks Rav Cardozo, was the Torah so uncompromising in the way the Passover meal was to be prepared?
The Jewish people, both in America and around the world, have contributed more than their “fair share” to science, medicine, the arts; I recently came across an article remarking on the disproportionate percentage of recipients of the Nobel Prize who are of Jewish descent. Indeed, we Jews have certainly had, and continue to have, an impact on the world. The Jewish openness to all forms of knowledge has no doubt been essential to our ability to contribute.
Pesach night offers a contrast to this theme: According to the Maharal of Prague, while boiling is a process that assimilates, roasting separates. When we boil food, we draw several other ingredients in. These ingredients assimilate with the food that then absorbs and adapts the components. The host food softens and disintegrates. Roasting, in contrast, expels: Not only does it remove all the blood present, but it also separates all ingredients not essential to the meat. As such, it shrinks the meat and makes it tough and impenetrable.
On the night of the Exodus, the Jewish people coalesced into a nation. On that fateful night, “absorption” of influences from the outside was inadvisable. Why? To become a nation, we had to take a courageous stand against the world in which we had endured hundreds of years of exile: Am Yisrael had to uncompromisingly reject the idolatrous and immoral fabric of Egyptian culture.
Although Judaism has always welcomed individuals who wish to the take on the yoke of Torah, Moses’ acquiescence in absorbing an entire population whose ideas were foreign to the unique Jewish mission – was a serious miscalculation, says Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. During the period of self-definition which stretch on well after the night of the Exodus, we should have more tenaciously guarded our unique Jewish values and ethics. According to our commentators, it was the “Erev Rav” – a group of Egyptians who attempted to integrate itself en masse into the community of Israel – whose influence later led to the debacle of the Golden Calf.
It is this theme of self-definition the roasting of the Pesach offering symbolizes.