The true meaning of Passover


Pesach, which begins this year on Monday evening, April 22, is one of the most familiar and widely observed of the Jewish festivals. Surveys show a large majority of Jews celebrate the holiday with a Seder, a festive meal centered around telling the story of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt. Many non-Jews are familiar with the holiday, and the menu staples of matzah, marror (bitter herbs), and four cups of wine are well known.

Pesach might be better known as Passover.

Why is this holiday called Passover?

The classic answer is that the holiday celebrates God passing over the Jewish homes during the final plague against the Egyptians, the killing of the first-born. God passed over; hence we celebrate Passover.

This explanation is borne out by the text of the Torah. Shemot (Exodus) 12:23 reads:

“For, the Lord when going through to smite the Egyptians, will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.”

The Hebrew word “Pesach” is translated as pass over, and the holiday of Pesach/Passover is born. Except …

The Hebrew word “Pesach” has another meaning.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the classic medieval commentator known as Rashi, explains:

“The word ‘Pesach’ means ‘and God will show compassion.’ It can also mean ‘God will pass over them.’”

Pesach CAN mean to pass over. Passover is the popular Pesach translation which has been influenced by later Greek, Latin, Christian translations. At the same time, Pesach may be as much about “focus on” as it is about “pass over.” Pesach is the holiday of compassion.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the late great Orthodox thinker taught that freedom from slavery means having the ability to car for someone else. Time and again, the Torah will command the Jewish people to remember their slavery in Egypt as a motivation to show compassion for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the needy. God is saying, “You know how it feels to be without. Now that you are free, show compassion to those less fortunate.”

In many ways, we celebrate Pesach with an attitude of compassion.

The very first law of Pesach is called “Ma’ot Chitim,” which, literally, means “money for wheat.” The idea is that Pesach is an expensive holiday, and the first thing we should be worrying about is to ensure everyone can celebrate the holiday properly. We prepare for Pesach with compassion.

The Pesach Seder begins with the declaration, “Let all who are hungry come and eat; let those in need celebrate Pesach with us.” At the end of the Seder, we open the door for Elijah. One explanation is that we are ending the Seder with the same sentiment in which it began: our hearts and homes are open to others.

That’s Pesach! We remember the Exodus as a moment not only of God’s might and miracles, but also that it was God’s compassion — Pesach — that saved us. And we need to pay it forward.

Weinstock is the senior rabbi of the Jewish Center of Atlantic Beach.