5779 Passover Day 2
By Rabbi David Steinhardt
April 21, 2019
What is the etiology of the word Pesach? It is from Passover, and it has to do with the Paschal lamb that was brought as a sacrifice in ancient Egypt. The lamb plays a really important role in the story. In fact, at the Seder we reference this lamb, the paschal offering, in a few ways.
Last Shabbat we studied “Ha Lachma Anya.” We also read the words at the Seder table: Let all who are hungry come and eat! Kol Dichfin yeitei vyechol.
And we read Kol Dichfin yeitei v’yifsach. We translated it as, “Let all who are hungry come and celebrate.” But listen to the word v’yifsach – the root is Pesach. We are inviting all to come and do the Pesach with us.
What is the Pesach? Today we might say it is the Seder. But “back then”? It was the paschal offering.
We know there is so much in this Pesach “thing”. There is so much to do. There is so much to learn.
The word Pesach. The first lamb was taken on the 10th of Nisan. It was tied to the beds of the Hebrew slaves. It was sacrificed on the 14th and its blood was placed on the doorposts of the house.
God then “passed over” the houses of the Hebrews as He brought the worst of all plagues – the tragic killing of the firstborn of the Egyptians.
Here is the word for Pesach: u’fassachti … And I will pass over the homes of the Hebrew slaves.
We see that Pey–Samech–Chet is both the word for the paschal lamb offered and the word for passing over.
One is about what we bring to God. The other is about what God did for us.
Through the Pesach, we are tied in a relationship of mutuality. A relationship of deep commitment. The commitment of the people to God. A gift brought in gratitude, for memory, and in realization of the power of God to redeem us.
They are reflective of our doing or something done to us.
But the Seder that you and I and our families are celebrating is not so much about doing. It is different. It is about studying, reading and telling stories, asking questions, eating, and observing.
So, what is the essence of what we do at the Seder? The Haggadah tells us what is most important. It tells us that Rabban Gamliel said: There are three things that must be explained at the Seder … and if you don’t explain those three things, you have not fulfilled the requirement. The three things are Pesach, Matzah, and Maror.
Now we get the matzah thing that we did. We get the maror thing; it seems simple – bitterness. But also know that maror was used on the sacrificial table; it was eaten with the sacrificial meal.
But what about the Pesach? What about the offering of the lamb?
After Rabban Gamliel’s declaration of the three things that fulfill our obligation, the paragraph about Pesach includes both the Pesach as an offering, which was eaten and the passing over the houses of the Hebrews.
I want to turn to a Chasidic teaching … a brilliant use of the word.
Pesach, we learn, is about Peh Siach. It is about the mouth (peh) that speaks (siach). We know that this celebration was once about the sacrifice of the animal. That’s how it was observed. We marked this season – we remembered the event – through a korban, a sacrifice.
But as you know, something significant happened and there was a profound shift in Jewish life 2,000 years ago. The temple was destroyed. We were exiled, and we had to develop new forms of religious responses, new forms of celebration, new ways to relate to God and express ourselves religiously. Torah, Prayer, Teshuva. Acts of loving–kindness, Tzedakah.
The whole notion of the Seder is that we know it as an innovation. The form of learning and discussion was taken from the Greeks and the Romans. We borrowed the idea of the symposium. We asked questions, we told stories, we did blessings, and we recounted a history.
Peh siach … the mouth speaks, and we placed a great deal of emphasis on the conversation and on our learning.
We speak. (You know we Jews are big talkers.) We let our kids speak, and ask, and hopefully we all learn. All being well, that is what you experienced, at least a little. Peh–siach – what a beautiful idea!
We know that the obligation – the mitzvah – is in doing, but we keep all of this alive through our words, our conversation.
Yesterday, Rabbi Englander brought to our attention the teaching of Jonathan Sacks. It was a response he wrote to Notre Dame. We don’t have cathedrals, Sachs wrote – sanctity is in the time and the word … the text. I’d like to push back a little. We too have built cathedrals, glorious synagogues – even this place. But the essence is in Torah, teaching, conversation, the word peh-siach. Think about the importance in our lives – all of us have been touched by the Seder table.
Finally, I know that there are so many now who hardly do a Seder. I hear about two-minute Seders, I hear about people with nice dinners where they eat matzah and drink wine and the family gathers. Nice, but there needs to be more – more of what is essential and more that ties our kids and future generations to the meaning of this holiday and the meaning of this tradition. And that is peh-siach.
So, the question then is how to keep the meaning back to the table.
The haftarah describes a time when there was a religious rebirth and reformation. After the return to the Temple of old which had been in disrepair and no longer being used for the purposes of our tradition, Josiah, Yoshi ahu, found the “text”. It is believed to be Deuteronomy. The people gathered to hear and to learn the text, and through the learning they were brought back to practice, to ritual and Jewish expression.
That is something I have shared with many of you. We learn together and then we come together for prayer and religious community. It started with learning, questions, and delivering meaning.
That is what we learn from this Haftarah. It is from the Second Book of Kings, and there is a parallel story in Chronicles, a different book of the Bible.
We read about a religious rebirth and then the Torah of Deuteronomy was found. This led to study and understanding.
And so we have two models presented.
In our world today, there are those who yearn for spiritual expression. There are those who want to do, before the knowledge of what or why. And there are those who want to know why, those who want to express ideas, be in conversation and learn – and learn more and more, which can lead to the doing.
And our job is to provide both.
Naaseh V’nishma. We will do and we will listen.
And, lilmod ulelameid, lishmor v’kaasot. We will learn, we will teach, we will observe, and we will do.
I hope this Pesach has been and will continue to be a time of doing and learning, understanding more and feeling deeply. Allowing for peh–siach in conversation.
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