Passover: God Limping
What is God?
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Passover is probably the best known Jewish holiday. It has its Biblical origins, of course, though most Jews are only superficially aware of what they are. Here is a brief summary of the events:
The Israelites/Hebrews were oppressed slaves in Egypt for quite a long time (traditional accounts have it varying from about 90 to 210 years). Moshe, after receiving his orders at the Burning Bush, returns to Egypt, partnered with his more articulate brother, Aaron, and goes about the business of setting his people free. This involves delicate negotiations with Pharaoh, who as Hashem had warned him, turns Moshe down outright. Pharaoh simply does not believe that this god that Moshe kept threatening him with could actually deliver the goods. A series of increasingly impressive displays of divine power is shown to Pharaoh, which only makes him more determined in his resistance. This also was predicted and planned. In fact, in a rather surprising verse, Hashem actually tells Moshe that, ‘I will harden the heart of Pharaoh, and increase my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt’ (7:3). It is all part of a plan to enable Hashem to openly reveal His invincible power to achieve His divinely ordained plan for the Israelites.
When Pharaoh finally breaks down completely and insists that Moshe gather up the Israelites and leave immediately, the Israelites are ready. Hashem had already primed them through a long speech via Moshe, that they should be all set to hit the road on a moment’s notice on the night that ushers the 15th day of the first month. This was to be a night that all the Israelites remained indoors, not in a state of trepidation, but partaking in a festive meal celebrating their upcoming freedom. This, of course, was the Passover meal, or Seder, as it has come to be called. It included matzah, bitter herbs, the paschal (Passover) lamb, but no gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, or Manischewitz wine, and certainly no beer. It was to be a meal of readiness, eaten with ‘your limbs girded, your shoes on your feet, your staffs in your hands, and eaten quickly, for it is the Pesach of Hashem’ (12:11).
In the verse above, where it is used as a noun, the word Pesach is usually left untranslated (left as ‘Paschal’). When it is used as a verb, as it is in three separate verses, there is a surprising debate about its meaning. While the standard translation invariably is ‘passed over’ or ‘pass over’, depending on the tense, this was not always the case. The earliest translation that we are aware of, the Septuagint into ancient Greek, renders it twice as ‘protect’ and once as ‘pass over’. The Aramaic translation of Onkelos translates all three cases as ‘pity’ or pitied’. The three verses in question all refer to the instructions that the Israelites received about putting blood from the lamb on the doorposts and the lintel of their houses. The three verses read as follows:
And the blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and I shall see the blood and ‘pass over/pity/protect’, and there will not be a destroying plague among you when I strike the land of Egypt. (12:14)
And Hashem will pass (not the word 'Pesach') to plague Egypt, and He shall see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and Hashem will ‘pass over/pity’ the doorway and not allow the destroyer to come into the house to plague. (12:23)
And you shall say “It is a Paschal (Pesach) offering to Hashem, who ‘passed over/protected/pitied’ the houses of the Israelites in Egypt in plaguing the Egyptians and our houses He spared”... (12:27)
The first obvious question that strikes the observant reader concerns this ‘destroyer’. Who, or what, is this? Is it some out-of-control side of Hashem’s personality that we haven’t yet heard about? Is it some other ‘force’ out there, like a rogue angel that somehow sneaks in when the going gets good? Second, what really is the translation of Pesach? Third, of course, is the old ‘image of God’ question – which one is revealed here?
Taking the ‘destroyer’ question first, a verse a little later dispels any doubt, if there was any to begin with, as to who, or what, was dishing out the plague: ‘And as Pharaoh hardened his heart against sending us, and Hashem killed all the firstborn in the land Egypt, from human to animal…’ (13:15). It was Hashem both behind the scenes and right on the spot. So this ‘destroyer’ is a real mystery. It does seem like some reckless tendency that even Hashem cannot control, impossible as this may seem.
Perhaps we can suggest that there is such a thing as a divinely ordained time of destruction. At such times, and in such places, you just don’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity, even if you are otherwise divinely protected. It seems that this was such a time. The plague of the firstborn was, in essence, non-discriminatory. It could strike an Israelite as well as an Egyptian. It just happened to hit only those who were firstborn. Those were the classic conditions of this plague, and the Torah is telling us that anyone who met the conditions was susceptible to it. The ‘destroyer’ is the plague, and the bringer of the plague was Hashem.
This brings us to the second question, the translation of the word ‘Pesach’. How could such a simple word with such an established tradition have such an unclear meaning? It turns out that the word itself is almost exclusively used in the context of this event and the commemorating festival. There are almost no outside indications of the actual meaning of the word. It is true that the traditional translation does fit the story – Hashem, in striking Egypt with this destructive plague, passed over the Israelite houses and spared them. The only problem is that there is a perfectly kosher alternative word that means pass over. That is the word in the first part of the verse 12:23. Why is it necessary to have a different word for the name of the offering that became the key word in the story?
The other translations, ‘protect’ and ‘pity’, also fit in the verses, but they have the problem of the implication that Hashem is working against this force of destruction instead of working with it. It’s either divine protection or divine pity against the evil force of destruction, which is really just Hashem unleashed. The ‘pass over’ translation suffers from this same problem but it’s a little more removed. Is there another option?
It turns out that there is. The only outside indication of the meaning of this ancient Hebrew word comes from the next book of the Chumash, Leviticus. Deep in that book it discusses certain physical defects that might render a priest unfit for work in the temple. One of these is a pise’ach, a word that in Hebrew is spelled exactly the same as the word Pesach. This commonality is crucial to understanding the meaning of Hebrew words. In that case, the word refers to someone who is lame, who limps along. Is this what the word means here?
Let’s run it through the verses. In all of them the common theme is Hashem ‘blanking’ and sparing the Israelites. If that ‘blank’ was ‘lame’ what happens? It means that Hashem was lame, or limped, over the Israelite houses upon seeing the blood on the doorposts, so the destroyer couldn’t enter and do his thing. ‘He shall see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and Hashem will limp over the doorway and not allow the destroyer to come into the house to plague’. Or, ‘I shall see the blood and limp, and there will not be a destroying plague among you’. Or, ‘It is a Paschal offering to Hashem, who limped over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt in plaguing the Egyptians and our houses He spared’. In all of them this word ‘limp’ emphasizes the aspect of Hashem deliberately displaying a kind of weakness of divine power.
This produces a rather unexpected twist in things that may reveal an unexpected image of God. Hashem is the ‘destroyer’. There is no masking and no mistaking that unsavory side of Hashem’s repertoire. This is part of what Hashem has to do in the frequently thankless role of being God. Sometimes one group has to go so another can reach their destiny. With God, perhaps we expect a higher standard. But that isn’t always possible. As much as we may prefer it if God waves some magic wand and makes everyone live happily ever after, that isn’t the way the world was built.
Plagues have happened throughout human history. This plague potentially affected every house in the area, as plagues tend to do. But there was one way out. Hashem, who was the source of the plague, could ‘limp’ over the house of those who committed to leaving the humdrum and pointless life they were living and to go out on a wild and uncertain venture into the uncharted desert and an even more uncharted future. This series of events that led to the freeing of the Hebrew slaves and the forming of the Israelite nation was a watershed event in human history. The image of limping was the need of the hour. Hashem’s wrath, the unfortunately necessary divine power of destruction, was in high gear. Over certain houses, over certain individuals, it limped and they were spared.
Perceiving the Image
It is easy to see why this translation never made it big in Judaism. The holiday of ‘Limping’ just doesn’t sound all that inviting. The term ‘Passover’ may be a little vague, but at least it doesn’t sound weak or wimpy. So what is this image really all about?
Limping is not your average perception of God. Michelangelo would never have painted God limping on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. It even smacks a little of heresy. But the contrasting image of destroyer is not any better. It may display strength and power but it sure doesn’t do any favors to God’s reputation as merciful and just. The world is full of destruction. Nature is full of destruction. Destruction is part of building. We may not like the destructive part of building but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. The destroyer was out that night as it has been many times and places since. We’ve all seen destruction at work and we’ve all wondered where God was when it was going on.
But there is something that moderates the destruction. It happens in little corners in the midst of the wreckage that something survives; someone crawls out from under the earthquake damage and shows that not all was destroyed. A plagues strikes and a group of people are somehow immune. A war ravages a country and some people make it through all the devastation by living off the land or escaping through the mountains. This is God limping. By all rights they should not have survived. But they did. They lived to tell their tale and to forge a new destiny based on unexpected survival and a commitment to live again. This really is the Passover story. It’s not just about matzah ball soup and horseradish. It’s really about a group of people surviving a round of destruction and emerging as a new people with a new destiny. They may have seen God stomping around and destroying, but they also saw God limp when they could have been stomped on.
This image causes some problems in addition to solving others. It’s the same old question: why can’t God just make it right in the first place?
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