Pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover, appears first in the context of the ten plagues, in which God passed over the homes of the Israelites while the rest of Egypt suffered.
On a deeper level, the Passover festival is based on this idea of passing or skipping over the regular order of things. The Jews did not leave Egypt as part of an evolutionary process. Their departure was a leap, a shortcut.
While the exodus was a move from slavery to freedom, it was also a transition from oppression to redemption. From beginning to end, the Passover redemption is a leap over an orderly, consistent historical course into a new and better state and a much higher level of existence.
The Israelites were not just enslaved. They had become slaves in their mindset, their world-view and their sense of personal self-worth. While the sons of Jacob and their families surely had a spiritual and religious legacy, it was not well defined and had no specific rites; thus the legacy was practically non-existent.
Possibly the Israelites did retain some elements of their past, but they surely became more and more assimilated into Egyptian culture and its atmosphere. The exodus from Egypt, then, called for a very profound change in the entire psyche and social makeup of the Jewish people.
The act of releasing a slave – one who was born into bondage and with an entire life spent obeying orders – calls for a thoroughgoing personality change. Those who came out of Egypt were immersed in the lowest levels of Egyptian culture. They had to detach themselves completely from their old life and acquire a new set of concepts.
All the slips and failures of the Israelites during their wanderings in the desert are therefore understandable. Yet despite all these personal, social and cultural impediments, this broken nation successfully became a new national entity and began taking a new path.
The prophet Ezekiel compares the Jewish nation that is redeemed from Egypt to a poor girl, saying (Ezekiel 16:6-7): “And…I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live…yet you were naked and bare.”
Thus, over and above all the miracles of the Exodus, the greatest miracle of all is that Jewish people did indeed come out of Egypt and became a nation. The entire Exodus represents a quick leap into redemption, passing over the life of slavery that had lasted for hundreds of years.
There is a great lesson here for every individual in every generation: everyone can “pass over,” make a leap. People can, even by the power of their own decision, make transitions that are not gradual but almost revolutionary. The “passing over” of Passover teaches us that such a jump is possible and inspires us to do so.
Passover represents the promise that we will indeed be able to leap over the multitude of small and big obstacles in our path and reach a better, more perfect state of things, both physically and spiritually.
About the Author: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a world-renowned scholar who has authored more than 60 books and hundreds of articles on Torah.
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