The Meaning of Pesach and Passover: Jumping Back and Forth by Ephraim Helfgot


It is fascinating that the sacrifice commemorating the Exodus, and its holiday, are both called “Pesach.” The word itself means “passing over,” and is the source of the English word Passover; however, as a description of the overall event or significance of the Exodus, it certainly seems to be a poor choice. The name of the holiday, one would think, should mention freedom, or the miracles of G-d, or the start of Jewish nationhood. Instead, Pesach refers to G-d’s refraining from killing the Jewish firstborn. This act itself was not miraculous but rather a limitation upon a miracle; additionally, if one was asked to explain the Exodus in one sentence, it would be a startling response to say, “G-d passed over the Jewish firstborn while killing the Egyptian firstborn.” Thus, we are compelled toask: Why is “Pesach” the enduring name for the  commemoration?

The Torah states, with regard to tithes of livestock, that all animals owned by an individual should be passed under a staff, and every tenth animal should be deemed holy unto G-d: “Vechol ma’asar bakar va’tzon kol asher ya’avor tachat hashavet ha’asiri yihiyeh kodesh la’shem, Any tithe of cattle or flock of all that pass under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to the Lord (Vayikra 27:32).” This image of the shepherd passing the sheep under his staff and counting them sounds familiar, as it is the way that G- d’s judgement is described in Tehillim. Furthermore, the famous parable of Yechezkel with regard to Bnei Yisrael’s Exodus, acceptance of the Torah, and betrayal of G-d contains the phrase, “Va’e’evor alayich va’ereich mitboseset bedamayich va’omar lach bedamayich chayi, va’omar lach bedamayich chayi, And I passed by you and saw you downtrodden with your blood, and I said to you, 'With your blood, live,' and I said to you, 'With your blood, live.' (Yechezkel 16:6).” This introduces the other Hebrew phrase of passing over, “la’avor,” into G-d’s refraining from smiting the Jewish firstborn. The doubling of the final portion of the verse is taken by Chazal to indicate the two mitzvot of blood, the korban pesach and brit milah, that were performed by Bnei Yisrael in the final days of their “sojourn” in Egypt.

The key difference within this comparison between the tithing of sheep and Bnei Yisrael on the night of Makkat Bechorot lies in the question of the fate of those not selected. In the case of ma’asar beheimah, the other sheep are merely left under their owner, unsanctified but not condemned; in the case of Bnei Yisrael in Egypt, all those not specifically saved by Hashem were killed. Ma’asar beheimah is a human’s way, within the bounds of normal life, to acknowledge G-d’s presence; Makkat Bechorot was G-d’s way, in a supernatural fashion, to have His presence acknowledged.

We now must analyze the verb “pasach,” which is used to describe Makkat Bechorot but not ma’asar beheimah. It is the verb used by Eliyahu in his tongue-lashing of Bnei Yisrael at Har Karmel: “Ad matai atem poschim al sh’tei hase’ifim, Until when are you hopping between two ideas? (Melachim I 18:21)” referring to the people’s tendency to worship ba’al as well as G-d. Posei’ach, then, means to hover, to jump back and forth, to be indecisive. Bnei Yisrael in Eliyahu’s time are unable to form religious convictions; they wavered towards one god on one day, and another on the next. For them to be able to choose G-d, they needed proof that it was the right decision—hence Eliyahu’s miraculous bringing down of fire from Heaven.

This background allows the root pasach to shed light on Makkat Bechorot and the entire Exodus. Hashem hovered indecisively over the Israelite firstborns—to kill or not to kill? After all, Bnei Yisrael had descended to the forty-ninth gate of impurity, only a small step away from complete wickedness (Vayikra Rabbah 32:5). If the Bechorim were to die, so be it; but were they to survive, they would be required to acknowledge, even serve, the Being who had saved them. G-d had to make sure that His choice, in effect, would pay dividends.

This is the idea behind pesukim such as, “Ki li chol bechor beyom hakoti chol bechor be’eretz Mtzrayim hikdashti li chol bechor be’yisrael, For all the firstborns are Mine; since the day I smote all the firstborns in the land of Egypt, I sanctified for Myself all the firstborns of Israel (Bamidbar 3:13).” G-d’s  sparing of all bechorei Y israel necessitated their sanctification, so as to lower the risk of His gamble. Yet, this idea is not limited to the firstborn. Indeed, Makkat Bechorot is presented as a din in the bayit (e.g. “Ki ein bayit asher ein sham meit [Shemot 12:30],” “Asher pasach al batei Bnei Y israel be’mitzrayim [Shemot 12:27].”). Even if the application of the potential makkah was only towards the Bechorim, it affected all of Bnei Yisrael; indeed, when the opportunity for priesthood was confiscated from the firstborn and given to the Levi’im, it was  as punishment for the sin of the Eigel Hazahav (see Rashi to Bamidbar 3:12), which was committed by all of Bnei Yisrael except the Levi’im.

Taking all of this into account, we can now suggest a new approach to the meaning of Pesach. Rather than just commemorating an event that took place millennia ago, we are proving to G-d—with every Mitzvah, every service, every retelling of the story—that His eventual decision to save the Jewish people was a risk well worth taking. Chag Hapesach, then, shows that Hashem took a chance on us; therefore, we are commanded to serve Him, to validate His gamble. “Ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li betzeiti mi’mitzrayim (Shemos 13:8),” the pasuk states; G-d took us out of Egypt because of our eventual commitment to the mitzvot. Let us not disappoint Him.

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