As strange as it may seem, the Israelites seem to have only observed Passover once during their 40-year sojourn in the desert: the first Passover after the Exodus from Egypt. The sages1 noted this difficult-to-explain lapse and commented that it was a “disgrace to the Israelites” that for 39 out of 40 years the Passover offering was not brought.

Commentators2 have noted that it was not possible for them to bring the Passover offering during their years in the desert, as the Israelites did not practice circumcision then, and the Torah3 is very clear that only someone circumcised may bring the Passover offering.

Indeed, we read in the book of Joshua4 that the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River a few days before Passover,5 and that they were circumcised en masse and subsequently brought the Passover offering.

This is remarkable, as the Israelites had just crossed over into enemy territory, and yet they went about circumcising all the males (rendering them all defenseless) so that they could celebrate Passover, while for the prior nearly four decades (when the risks were possibly much lower) they had not done so.

How come for all those years the Israelites lapsed in their practice of such a foundational observance, especially if it would prevent them from observing Passover?

Tosafot,6 the great medieval commentary to the Talmud, takes the view that many Israelites did indeed bring the Paschal offering during the forty years in the desert—but only those who were circumcised did so. (Tosafot adds that, ideally, anyone who had a family member who was uncircumcised was not supposed to bring the offering. Thus many of those who did bring the Passover lamb were not doing so correctly.)

According to this view, many Israelites brought the Passover offering during the desert years. And as the years passed, more children were born but not circumcised. Thus, the proportion of Israelites not observing Passover was continually increasing.

But how can we explain that hundreds of thousands of Israelites failed to observe Passover properly year after year?7

Rashi8 takes the view9 that the Passover offering was only ever commanded as an observance in the Land of Israel, which is why it was not done in the desert. The one year when the offering was brought was an exception due to Divine decree. If so, the people did nothing wrong by not bringing the offering.

But we are still left wondering why Rashi himself says that it was regarded as a “disgrace” that the Israelites didn’t bring the offering. Clearly, then, it is something that they should have clamored for.10 If so, why did they not do so? And we are still left wondering why there would be no reason to bring the Passover offering in the years prior to entering the land.

Passover and Jewish Identity

We will arrive at a highly satisfactory explanation by way of a unique insight from the Rebbe. The Midrash tells that on the night of the Exodus, although Moses had instructed the Israelites in Egypt to prepare a lamb to be eaten on the night of their redemption, many failed to do so, choosing to ignore Moses and his directives.

What happened was that Moses began making his own Paschal offering, and miraculously the scent from the roasting spread a vast distance and became so overwhelming that those Israelites that had no Passover lamb came begging Moses to allow them to partake of his meal.

The Midrash11 relates that Moses explained to those people that he was unable to include them in the meal, as the rule is that “no foreigner may eat of it”12 – and as they were intermingling with the Egyptians they were disqualified. So enticed were they by the scent of Moses’ Passover lamb that they promptly acquiesced and separated themselves from the heathens.

Having done this, says the Midrash, they returned to Moses asking to partake. However, Moses had more news for them: the rule is clear that “no one uncircumcised may eat from it.”13 Thus, they went and had themselves circumcised. In this manner, those who were initially uninspired to prepare for the Exodus became incentivized to ready themselves.

The Rebbe14 asks a striking question on this Midrash: Why did Moses focus his initial attention on the fact that those Israelites were intermingling with Egyptians, instead of focusing on the main issue, which is the fact that they were uncircumcised? After all, the prohibition was only for the “foreigner” to actually eat the Passover offering, and no one was suggesting that the foreigners with whom they had mingled join them in eating the sacrifice. By contrast, the problem of being uncircumcised meant they were definitely prevented from themselves eating from the Paschal lamb.

This must mean, the Rebbe explains, that in Moses’ eyes, securing the distinct identity of the Israelites was a central theme of the Passover offering. To Moses, the celebration of Passover was meant to create a sense of Jewish nationhood, distinct from Egyptian culture and society. Given that Passover aims to establish an Israelite identity, the issue of assimilation was Moses’ first and overriding concern.

No Assimilation in the Desert

Armed with this insight, we can now understand how come the Israelites (or a great many of them) did not bring the Passover offering in the desert. A desert is defined in the book of Jeremiah as “an uninhabited place.”15 In the desert, the Israelites lived in splendid isolation and came in contact with virtually no one. Thus, the potential for assimilation was nonexistent. There was, therefore, no critical need for Passover in the desert. Given there was some degree of risk in having a circumcision in the desert conditions,16 the Israelites had a legitimate reason to postpone this ritual, as there was no great loss in not bringing the Passover offering in an uninhabited desert.17

However, once the Israelites had crossed over the Jordan River and entered the Land of Canaan, the issue of assimilation became ever so real. Now, there was absolutely a need for the Israelites to be reminded of their unique identity. Having entered a land full of idol worshipers, it was of great necessity that they circumcise and bring the Paschal lamb, so as to ensure that they would remain true to their identity and destiny.

Herein lies an important lesson: We can and should reach out and impact the whole world in the broadest possible manner. Still, we can only go about doing so once we have established our own identity. The great contributions the Jewish people have made to the world are only possible because we have stayed true to our distinct heritage and values.