We know there is this funny choreography that a noticeable group of Jews engages in every Erev Pesach. Firstborn men and the fathers of firstborn boys have an eventful Erev Pesach morning. They are told, “You have to fast. But you can get out of it first thing in the morning if you go to shul and listen to someone complete a volume of Talmud.”
True story: When I was 16 years old, Pesach started on a Saturday night. So the Firstborn fast, which is usually on the day before Pesach, was pushed up from Shabbos to Thursday. My sister had baked two apple pies, the last chometz pies until after Pesach. I was planning on enjoying them, or some of them, on Thursday, before Bedikas Chometz.
But then disaster struck: I overslept on Thursday morning. All the minyanim in my neighborhood has early minyanim. So I missed being present for a Siyum! I shuddered to think that I would have to fast that day, and be the only Jew foolish enough to be stuck fasting on Taanis Bechorim.
Then I remembered; it doesn’t have to be a siyum. Any Seudas Mitzvah counts. But who is having a seudas mitzvah three days before Pesach?! Nobody is getting married… Then I have a light bulb go off above my head. I called Jewish General Hospital and asked, “Is there a bris being held today in the Bris room?” Jewish General had a room on their lower level where brisses were done regularly on boys who had been born eights days prior at the hospital. The person on the other end of the line said, “Yes, a bris is scheduled for noon.” I rejoiced. I didn’t have a driver’s license, but my father was nice enough to drive me, and there we celebrated the bris of a jewish boy, while the boy’s twin sister looked on, probably grateful to God on that day for having made her according to His will! We said Mazel Tov to the parents, I had a mini-chocolate croissant or two, and we headed back home to enjoy my sister’s apple pies.
Why play this game? I like to suppose that there is a connection between these two events, the fast and the Siyum. We start with the fast. It is of fairly recent vintage. There is no mention of it in the Talmud. It is more of a custom from post-Talmudic times. As such, it was always the case that the festive meal that accompanies a happy Jewish occasion would be considered a higher halachic priority. The Jewish firstborn, of families that observed that first Korban Pesach. So why fast? The whole point of the Seder is to CELEBRATE that we were spared; the fasting seems out of place. Yet if I could think of that, then I will assume that the communities and rabbis who thought up the idea of the fast could think of it too; they knew what Passover is about. So what then is an explanation?
An event a congregant in my shul in Virginia experienced helped me understand the concept. She had a room right in the front of her house where her small children used to play every afternoon. This one particular afternoon, the boys decided for whatever reason to play elsewhere in the house. No big deal. That is, until their across-the-street confused elderly grandmother neighbor drove out of her driveway, and instead of turning left or right into the street, drove right up my congregant’s lawn and smashed into the outside wall of the playroom. When I heard what happened, I thought “Baruch Hashem!” But the mother was terrified. While everyone was fine, she felt an understandable dread that her family had dodged a bullet. People who dodge bullets should be happy about the dodge. But the fact that they were much closer to death than they thought they were, or should have been, is a legitimate fear of Divine Judgment. (Focusing or obsessing on it is also unhealthy.) So this is how I see the sens of what a firstborn Jew would have been feeling. That trepidation of “There but for the grace of God go I.” is what motivates the fast, intertwined with the joy that motivated the Pesach celebration.
Now the next step: Why were the firstborn appropriate victims of the 10th plague? The easiest and likeliest explanation from the Torah’s perspective is that in societies of old, and to a certain extent even nowadays on a less official level, the firstborn are the leaders of any generation, especially the up-and-coming generation. In three areas, the Torah assumes a leadership role for them: Priesthood, Inheritance and nobility/monarchy. They had a real responsibility, and removing the entire layer of leadership was a powerful message in any generation. Imagine a room full of a country’s top leadership is bombed, and only a few survive. Those few now have a greater responsibility on their shoulders, and they need to take that seriously. That seriousness is demonstrated through a fast.
Now to put the two together. (B’derech Drush)
Fasting is meant to give one some perspective of the seriousness of a situation. I would like to suggest that being involved in the celebration of a Mitzvah should also give any person some added perspective; After all, celebrating a Mitzvah always fortifies one’s commitment to Torah. Now; experiencing the reality that the celebration trumps something as serious as a fast also adds to our perception of the significance of Torah and Mitzvos.
The fact that sharing the joy of a Jew who has finished learning a Masechta is enough to cancel a fast will certainly enhance one’s appreciation of the Joy that Torah is intended to give a Jew. The Bechor’s attitude in understanding the seriousness of his role as a bechor would be enhanced by the fast, as explained earlier. But his attitude can be enhanced by a Simcha she Mitzvah, and Simcha shel Torah just as much.
And frankly, in our day and age, when fasting is so difficult to appreciate, especially on Erev YomTov, the attitude will be enhanced even more through the Seuda than through than the fast.