Apr 14 2011

What’s in a Name, in the Case of Passover, a Lot!

What’s in a Name? In the Case of “Pesach,” a Lot!

Rabbi Joel Zeff

 

The holiday of Pesach is known in English as “Passover.” Though English translations of Hebrew terms are occasionally imprecise, in this case the translation seems appropriate, after all, in the Haggada itself we say, “Because the Holy One, blessed be He, passed-over the houses of our fathers in Egypt.”  It may be news to many that this reference in the Haggada is not to the name of the holiday, but to the name of the special offering, the Paschal lamb, enjoyed by all in Temple times on Passover. But this is not the big surprise.

The famous Aramaic translation of the Torah known as Targum Onkeles renders the Hebrew term “u’phasachti,”  (Exodus 12:13- a verb from the same root as Pesach) with the Aramaic word, “ve’achus,” which means  “I will have compassion.” The Talmudic sages also suggest such a meaning in a midrash found in the collection Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, “As a reward for the mitzvah that  you are doing I will reveal myself and have compassion on you, as it is said, “u’phasachti over you,” and this term means nothing other than compassion.” Rashi, the greatest of the medieval commentators, quotes this rather unknown translation of the term Pesach suggested by Onkeles and the midrash, only to emphatically reject it, insisting that the term does indeed  mean  “to  pass over.”

These two schools of thought can be reconciled, with a profound insight, through another midrash from the collection entitled “Pesikta Rabbati.” Let’s examine the text:

The voice of my beloved is coming, skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills (Song of Songs 2).

Rabbi Yehuda explains, This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed, did not the Holy One, blessed be he tell Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved for 400 years, and only 210 years have passed?! Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your calculations, but rather will skip-over them…”

Rabbi Nachman explains… This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed, is not the land of Egypt filled with our idolatry?  Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your evil deeds, but rather will skip-over them…”

The rabbis explain… This is a reference to Moses. When he came and said to Israel, Behold, this month you are being redeemed, they said to him, Moses, our master, how can we be redeemed when we have no good deeds?  Moses replied, “Since He desires your redemption He will not look at your evil deeds, but rather will skip-over them…”

The Song of Songs is a romantic poem describing the loving relationship between God and Israel which is expressed particularly through the exodus from Egypt. The verse referenced in the central text of the midrash “skipping over the mountains and jumping over the hills” is understood as an allusion to the Pesach of the exodus from Egypt in which God skipped over. But the passing over is not being interpreted solely with the conventional meaning of the passing over the Jewish homes during the plague of the killing of the first-born. The passing over here is God’s passing over of consideration of all the many reasons not to redeem His nation: the appointed hour had not yet arrived, we were full of idolatry, and we lacked positive good deeds. In other words, God skipped and passed over his attribute of justice and expressed his attribute of pure loving kindness, his unlimited grace, like that of a mother who loves her children unconditionally. Indeed, the same Hebrew root that means “womb” also means “mercy.”

This midrash unites both meanings of the name Pesach.  It does mean to “pass over,” as Rashi explains, and it does mean “compassion” as Onkeles explains. Pesach is a powerful reference to God’s passing over his attribute of reasonable and just considerations (in Hebrew, din) in order to redeem Israel through his unconditional loving compassion (in Hebrew, rachamim). We often feel unworthy of God’s love and perhaps rightfully so, but Pesach is the great reminder that ultimately we rely on a wonderful Jewish notion of divine grace.

The prophet Micah tells us, “As in the days when you left Egypt, I shall show you wonders [during the final Redemption].”  Though we dare not desist from our unending obligation to grow as Jews, we must never despair because of our shortcomings, for ultimately the final redemption will be a “passover” just as the first. May it be soon, in our days!