NIGHTS OF WATCHING
The idea of watching or vigilance is a central theme in our parsha. The root "shemira", "watching", appears no less than eight times. We were bidden to watch the sheep for the Pesach sacrifice several days before the holiday (Shemot 12:6); to watch the matzot (Shemot 12:17); to watch and observe the day itself as a festival forever (Shemot 12:17); to watch and keep the particular observances of the festival (Shemot 12:24); to watch and keep the observance as a whole (Shemot 12:25); and to watch and keep the laws of Pesach as a commemoration of the Exodus (Shemot 13:10). And Pesach night itself is referred to as a "Night of Watching" (Shemot12:42).
The status of Pesach as a "night of watching" has specific halakhic expressions. For instance, on ordinary Shabbatot we follow Maariv with the blessing "Magen Avot", in order to allow latecomers and slow daveners to catch up, so that they won’t be endangered by walking home alone. (SA OC 268:8 and MB 20.) But on Pesach, which is a night of watching, this blessing is omitted. (SA OC 487:1.) For the same reason, those parts of the bedtime "Shema" which are meant for protection are not said on Pesach night. (Rema OC 481:2.)
Shabbat too is considered a day when we are specially protected from harm. It is for this reason that the blessing preceding the Maariv Amida doesn’t refer to HaShem as "Protector of His people Israel" (shomer amo yisrael), but rather as He "Who spreads a canopy of peace" (hapores sukkat shalom). (SA OC 267:3, MB 7, based on Zohar Bereshit, I:48a.) Yet "Magen Avot" and bedtime Shema are still said! What is the difference between the two kinds of protection?
The Prisha suggests that Shabbat protects us only when we keep it properly. The "sukkat shalom" is a potential, not a promise. However, the special shemira of Pesach doesn’t depend on us. (Prisha OC 267:3b.)
We can find a basis for this distinction in our parsha. The Torah speaks of HaShem, so to speak, descending into Egypt in order to smite the Egyptians and spare the Jews: "And HaShem will pass through to smite Mitzrayim… and He will not let the destroyer come to your houses to do harm." (Shemot 12:23; see also 12:12 and12:29). This kind of unconditional protection was necessary for the Jews in the time of the Exodus, who were at a very low spiritual level as a result of living among the Egyptians for so long.
On Shabbat, the character of the protection is different. HaShem doesn’t descend to our place to protect us; rather, we ascend to His place, to a more exalted plane, where we are raised up above destructive forces. This is the metaphor of the "canopy of peace", a specific place where we are protected from harm. Such an ascent requires some participation on our part, and if we don’t reach the proper level we still require some special protection.
Rabbi Asher Meir is in the process of writing a monumental companion to Kitzur Shulchan Aruch which beautifully presents the meanings in our mitzvot and halacha. Rabbi Meir – who has given a series on Business Halacha at the Center, as well as three sessions of Meaning in Mitzvot – the Shiur. He will, IY"H, be continuing the series on a regular basis. See back page for details.