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Many Names Many Meanings

Rabbi Cohon’s Torah Talk Shabbat Passover 5779

This Friday we begin the great festival of freedom, Passover, probably the most observed Jewish holiday today. The Torah readings for Passover, as you might expect, reflect the events of the Exodus in prose, poetry and ritual.

As a festival, Pesach is special in some unique ways. Even the name of the holiday has special importance.

Pesach actually has no fewer than four official names in Jewish tradition: Pesach or Passover for the paschal offering, the lamb that was sacrificed and roasted in the days of the Bible and the Temple; Chag HaMatzot, the holiday of matzah, the unleavened bread we eat for the week of Passover; Chag HaAviv, the springtime festival, probably the oldest of the names of Passover; and most thematically, zman cheiruteinu, the season of our freedom. Each of these names has something important to teach us, and each is interesting in and of itself.

The word pesach itself comes from the word for “leaping” or jumping in Hebrew, an apt description of the ways that young lambs leap and cavort in the fields. The use of this animal for the sacrifice of the Passover reminds us of that the Angel of Death “leaped over” the homes of the Israelites when striking the first-born of the Egyptians dead, and it also refreshes for us the memory of the leaping joy of freedom, the ability to move and act as we wish that is prevented during slavery. Free people can cavort, skip, dance or jump as they please. Slaves jump to someone else’s command. Hence, Chag haPesach, the holiday of, well, skipping.

The second name for Passover is Chag HaMatzot, the festival of poor man’s bread, Matzah. Unleavened bread, made with flour and water in 18 minutes or less, baked quickly and simply, the food our ancestors made as preparation for a hasty journey in flight. Of course, on Pesach we eat matzah all week, and therefore do not eat chametz, which is best described as being the opposite of matzah, anything made with leavening or fermentation. That means lots of matzah this coming week... Oh, joy!

The third name for the festival is Chag HaAviv, the holiday of springtime. Undoubtedly there was a spring festival observed long before the events of the Exodus led to the creation of the holiday of Passover. Spring is celebrated in every culture and nearly every religion. In our Seder celebrations, the orderly meal held the first two nights that teaches the meaning and story of freedom in a rich and wonderful variety of ways, spring is featured in the green vegetables we dip in salt water and in the hardboiled egg that symbolizes the rebirth of spring. The magnificent love poem, Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible, is chanted on the Shabbat of Passover—this year the very first day—and it’s a text filled with images of gardens and growth and love in the flowering springtime. A wonderful way to celebrate this most beautiful and verdant of seasons.

And finally, the ultimate theme of Passover is freedom: zman cheiruteinu, the time of our liberation. It is this essential ideal that is woven all through the week of Passover, the central focus on God’s gift of liberty that has made Pesach the model freedom festival for the world. “In every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we, personally, had been brought out of Egypt,” we are taught in the Haggadah. In addition to our own celebration of our ancestors’ freedom, we also are compelled to learn compassion and have empathy for the downtrodden. For when we can view ourselves as survivors of slavery we are compelled to sympathize with the dispossessed, a central principle of Jewish belief.

Whichever name of this fabulous festival you favor, may you be blessed with a Chag Samei’ach v’Kasher, a happy and healthy holiday of Passover!

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