It was one of the momentous events in the history of our people, and it also happened on the first night of Pesach.
One of the largest armies ever gathered — 185,000 heads of companies, each leading a battalion of at least 2,000 men, with a total army topping the astronomical number of 370 million soldiers — had laid siege to Yerushalayim and was prepared to invade.
Sancheriv, the Assyrian leader of his troops, had no doubt that it was all but over for the Jews of that era. With an army so vast, he was confident of his invincibility. He sent blasphemous letters to Chizkiyahu Hamelech filled with mockery and reeking of arrogance.
On Erev Pesach, the righteous Chizkiyahu went to the Beis Hamikdash and poured out his heart in tefillah, pleading with Hashem to save Am Yisrael.
That night, the malach Gavriel descended into the camp of the Assyrians and the massive forces died an inexplicable death: their bodies remained intact but a fire consumed their insides. Out of the hundreds of millions, only three men survived: Sancheriv and his two sons, one of whom was the evil Nevuchadnetzar. Hashem allowed Sancheriv to survive so that he could suffer the indignity of returning to his capital city of Ninveh in disgrace. He was subsequently assassinated by his own sons.
In the piyut that is customarily recited during the second Seder, we briefly refer to this event: “The princes of Pul and Lud [Assyria] were consumed when the korban Pesach was burned.”
At first glance, the term “burned” seems out of place in regard to the korban Pesach, which is supposed to be roasted and not burned. Furthermore, Hashem usually punishes middah k’negged middah. Why did the forces of Sancheriv receive punishment by fire?
The Rebbe, Harav Menachem Mendel of Rimanov, zy”a, gives a fascinating and very relevant explanation.
Cognizant of the fact that the massive forces of Sancheriv were about to enter the city, the Yidden of that time were unsure if they would merit to offer a korban Pesach that year. Despite the terrible danger they were in, they decided to do as much as they possibly could.
“Let us at least fulfill the mitzvah of slaughtering the korban,” they reasoned.
After the shechitah was complete, they saw that the enemy still hadn’t entered the city.
“Let us do ours and at least roast it,” they reasoned. “If we will still merit to eat it, good. If not, we will at least have the merit of the mitzvah.”
Distracted by the terrible fears and worries they were experiencing, they didn’t roast the korbanos carefully enough, and the meat got burnt.
When they saw what had occurred, the Yidden of the time were deeply anguished.
“May the men of Sancheriv be burned like our korban Pesach!” they prayed. Their heartfelt tefillah was answered in its totality.
* * *
There are very pertinent lessons that can be learned from this teaching.
For one thing, it helps demolish the fallacious assumption that unless something can be done in its entirety, it shouldn’t be done at all.
From the actions of the Yidden of that era — and as proven by the subsequent result — we are reminded that our obligation is only to try. Unlike the rules that govern the materialistic world, in avodas Hashem it is our efforts and intentions that count. We must do ours in all circumstances, and leave the rest up to Hashem.
We also are reminded never to despair, no matter how dreadful or bleak the circumstances may appear. We can only imagine how devastated the Yidden of those times felt. After they had sacrificed a korban with such mesirus nefesh, the meat they were obligated to eat had burnt. They had feared that this would be their last mitzvah, and now they were unable to fulfill it properly.
But it was that burnt korban that inspired a tefillah that proved to be their salvation.
* * *
Pesach is a most uplifting Yom Tov. It also is a challenging one.
Often overtired after a series of stress-filled days and weeks, after much preparation and an enormous amount of work, we don’t always get to feel the sense of elevation during the Seder that we often yearn for and even expect.
But in reality it doesn’t matter what we feel. What matters are our efforts and our intent. We must do ours and recognize that even if we don’t sense it in our hearts, every word that we recite of the Haggadah, and every bite of matzah, bring great joy in Shamayim.
For many Yidden, it is a struggle to fill their hearts with joy as they are weighed down by various personal challenges and sources of anguish. Some may not even see a realistic way out from under their struggles.
Our ancestors in Mitzrayim didn’t, either. Nor did our ancestors in Chizkiyahu’s time. Hashem saved them, and He will bring us salvation and redemption as well.
May it be speedily in our day.