The Meaning of Pesah
Next week marks the beginning of Passover; with this annual celebration, Jews gather to celebrate the birth of the Israelite nation. It is a particularly joyous moment as we recline together to tell the story of enslavement in Egypt and our eventual redemption.
Not the product of human efforts alone, the redemption of the Israelites emanates from God. Movingly, the conclusion of Exodus chapter 2 attests to God’s involvement in history, “God heard their moaning: God remembered the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” From this moment on, God enters the scene in dramatic fashion, calling upon Moses, unleashing devastating plagues upon the Egyptians, and finally splitting the Red Sea as the Israelites enter a new reality. Still, the image that is most striking with regard to God’s role in the Exodus is the notion of God ‘passing over’ the Israelite homes. Exodus chapter 12: verse 12–13 vividly relates God’s words: “For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord. And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood
I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” To what extent is this definition of Pesah as ‘pass over’ accurate? And what are the practical ramifications of a new understanding of Pesah, if indeed warranted?
Keeping with a traditional and widespread understanding of Pesah, the Hebrew root appears illustratively in I Kings and elsewhere. Elijah questions the Israelites concerning their idolatrous dual allegiance to Ba’al and God: “How long will you keep hopping (poskhim) between two opinions?” (I Kings 18:21). Skipping or passing over bears itself out in other texts as well. Still, Nahum Sarna explains in The JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus:”Three traditions about the meaning of the stem p–s–h have survived. The oldest, and apparently the most reliable, is “to have compassion”; another is “to protect”; a third is “to skip over.” Although this last is the interpretation that has gained the widest currency, it is the least likely because the term was originally independent of the Exodus events” (Sarna, 56).
Thus, Isaiah chapter 31: verse 5 declares poignantly, “Like the birds that fly, even so will the Lord of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting (pasoakh) and rescuing.” Given the rapid succession of synonyms found in this verse, it is clear that God’s act is one of caring. God is one who protects Jerusalem. And just as God protects this sacred city, so too does God protect a sacred people, the Israelites, on the eve of their departure from Egypt.
Based especially on this alternative understanding of Pesah, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda teaches that the entire seder ritual must be re–envisioned. Rabbi Yehuda lovingly points out that the essence of Pesah is God’s hesed (loving–kindness). In truth, it is God’s hesed or more specifically, God’s loving protection, which weaves together all three of the pilgrimage festivals. Israel is protected on Shavu’ot through the giving and observance of Torah. At its core Sukkot also reminds us of God’s protecting presence as we gaze heavenward, reminding ourselves that we are indeed in the hands of our Maker. On Pesah too, we are eternal witnesses to God’s protection of the Israelites on the eve of their departure from Egypt.
Given these notions of compassion, Rabbi Yehuda takes his argument one step further — pointing out that both the rote declaration of the Ten Plagues and the passage Shfokh Hamatkha, (pour out your wrath) are situated awkwardly in the Passover Haggadah. As proof of this, one needs to look no further than the core text of the Maggid section, which is taken from Deuteronomy chapter 26. The Torah describes the bringing of the first fruits to the priest. As the basket of produce is handed over, the Israelite makes a stirring declaration of appreciation — reviewing the sacred history that brought the arrival of this day:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a might hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which you, Lord, have given me” (Deuteronomy 26:5–10).
At no point in this passage are the plagues explicitly mentioned or even alluded to. The core text of the Haggadah itself focuses wholly on the Israelite experience of redemption and not on an obsession to inflict vengeance on the Egyptians. Perhaps, this is indeed the reason that Rabbi Yehudah, of Haggadah fame, refers to the plagues according to three acronyms — dtzakh, adash, and b’ahav. Seeking to uphold the notion that “one should not rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemies,” Rabbi Yehudah creates a device by which he does not have to mention an explicit litany of punishments. For this reason too, the passage Shfokh Hamatkha, a relatively late addition to the haggadah liturgy, is just as conflictual with the true meaning of Pesah. While one understands the desire of a persecuted Jewish people to exact vengeance on their oppressors, Pesah is a time of compassion and protection. It is for this reason that Torah repeatedly commands us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. This memory is not with the goal of exacting vengeance; rather, it is with the hope that once the Israelites are the rulers, their country will behave according to the highest moral and ethical principles.
The core meaning of Pesah as compassion and protection gives us all pause to reconsider the liturgy and meaning of the seder experience. Not only should we imbibe the very real wine of the Four Cups, but so too should we drink a generous dose of compassion this seder eve. If we fail to express concern for the plight of the other, self–centeredness and selfishness will rule the day — enslaving us once again and turning the seder experience into little more than a folly. As Jews we must fill ourselves with hesed to realize our truest potential!
Shabbat Shalom and hag kasher ve–sameah,
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.