Pesah Three Ways
Unambiguous ambiguity is the hallmark of philology, the study of words. The deeper one delves into the meaning of a given word, the more that particular word yields to shades of meaning. This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Bo, presents us with one such example of multilayered understandings and readings. As the Children of Israel depart from Egypt, God issues the first commandment to the Israelites: “This month [Nisan] will mark for you the beginning of the months.” (Exodus 12:2). How are the Israelites to mark this new month of Nisan? On the tenth day of the month, the Israelites are commanded to select a lamb which will serve as the Pesah offering to God. What precisely is the meaning of Pesah? And how does the ritual surrounding the Paschal Lamb lend itself to revealing the varied meanings of the word “Pesah“?
To fully embrace the breadth of the word Pesah, we begin by exploring the narrative pertaining to the lamb. Three elements in particular stand out. First, while the Israelites are commanded to take a lamb on the tenth of Nisan, it is not until the fourteenth of Nisan, at twilight, that the lamb is slaughtered. Every household must partake of the lamb. Yet, if a family is too small to consume the lamb in its entirety, Torah urges them to join with other families and neighbors. By inviting others to one’s table, this will ensure that the lamb will be consumed by daybreak as commanded by God.
More than that, one may read this commandment symbolically. In most cases it is unlikely that a family will be able to consume an entire animal. And so we are compelled to turn outward, to be generous of spirit and welcome guests into our home. This is an act of compassion. One may not sit selfishly eating of the Paschal lamb; Torah enshrines the idea of transcending self and caring for others. Secondly, as the lamb is slaughtered, the Israelites are commanded to “take some of the blood and place it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the house.” (Exodus 12:7). The blood of the lamb then serves an apotropaic function. It becomes a sign protecting the Israelites from the tenth plague. The lamb lends itself to protection. And thirdly, Torah, in an unusual step, describes precisely how the lamb should be eaten: “Your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand, and you will eat it hurriedly” (Exodus 12:11). Clearly, Torah conveys the urgency of the moment. This ritual is about the journey on which the Israelites are embarking.
What then does Pesah truly mean? While we are all familiar with the widespread translation of Pesah as “Passover,” we now understand this word in a more nuanced, deeper way. As Nahum Sarna points out in his book Exploring Exodus, and as I have demonstrated above, Pesah has three meanings. Taken collectively, compassion, protection, and the idea of a journey, all speak to various aspects of the meaning of Pesah. God showed compassion to us; now we show our compassion to our fellow Israelites by inviting them to join our celebration. God protected us on the eve of our departure from Egypt; now we seek to expand this message, to protect others who are now oppressed in this world. And finally, just as God “passes over” on a journey, we, too, journey through our lives on the way to a more promised land.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.