The Real Meaning of Passover

Do you want to know the real meaning of Passover?

Okay. Then let's start by asking, who was Pharaoh? What made him such an important villain?

If Pharaoh was just some demented slave driver, the Torah wouldn't talk so much about him. The Torah wouldn't have to tell the whole story about what Pharaoh did and what he said. The Torah would just say, "There was an evil king, we got rid of him, let's eat." But Pharaoh -- both as an historical figure and as a psychological archetype -- is someone who the Torah thinks is worthy of study. In fact, many of his arguments are still fashionable today.

We can understand this by first mentioning briefly the Kabbalistic explanation for why G-d made the world.

Kabballah explains that G-d created a physical world and then asked us to use the very mundane, ordinary materials of life to make a home for G-d on earth -- in our money, in our food, in our clothing, in everything that we do. We do this by taking these everyday, physical things and using them to do G-d's will. And what is the point of this? The point is that G-d wants a dwelling place in the lowest realm of creation. And he wants us to build that dwelling place. In other words, the Infinite wants a home that is built in the finite, by the finite.

Now, Pharaoh considered himself G-d. And so, just like G-d, Pharoah chooses a people and then he tells this people, "Take straw and mud, and build me a home from the lowest materials."

So when Moses told Pharaoh that the Jews were going to stop building cities for him, Pharaoh asked him what he wanted to do instead. Moses told him that it was time for the people to go serve G-d in the wilderness. Pharaoh's response to Moses was, "What? You want to go out into the desert to find G-d? That is so irresponsible. It's dangerous. Don't you know what happens to people who go out into the desert and build a compound and wait for G-d? If I let you go out into the desert, you're all going to drink the Kool-Aid and you're all going to die. Or you'll come running back. Because leaving your work in order to go hang out and be spiritual in the desert is a crazy thing to do."

Egypt was the most advanced civilization on earth. We still can't figure out how they built those pyramids. They were on the cutting edge of everything. They were the future. And Pharaoh wanted the Jews to be part of this future. The fact that the Jews were going to abandon the plan really bothered him. Particularly Moses, who grew up in the palace, was bothersome to Pharaoh. "You of all people? You could be in the heart of progress making history and you're going to take your people and wander in a desert and become useless? I can't let you do that."

Of course, after a couple of plagues Pharaoh said, "Alright already! Take a minyan and go do your thing." Moses said, "No, not a minyan. We're taking 'our youth, our elders, our sons and our daughters.' Everybody's coming." Pharaoh said, "Okay, you're crazier than I thought... and you're not going."

A couple of more plagues later Pharaoh said again, "Enough! What do you need to have your holiday in the dessert?" Moses said, "Well, we need all of our sheep and cattle plus some of yours." Pharaoh said, "That's it. You're out of your mind."

But you can see that Pharaoh sort of had a point. Yes, of course there was a certain cruelty to the whole thing. But his basic argument, his actual objection, was pretty rational. "How can you abandon productivity and go make yourself useless by doing weird things in the middle of nowhere?" It makes sense.

Of course, it's over 3,300 years later now and we can look back and see the results. Egypt is a mummy. It's a relic. The great ancient Egyptian civilization is gone. And the Jewish people who went wandering in the desert are still making waves in every area of life.

But Pharaoh's mistake was this. He thought the Jews and Moses wanted to go out into the desert to look for G-d, to find G-d. And if that were the case, then Pharaoh would be totally right. If that were the case, then the Jews really had no right to abandon civilization in order to go wait for some sort of divine calling in the desert.

But eventually Pharaoh realized that what was happening was not the Jews looking for G-d. It was G-d taking the Jewish people to Him. And once he realized that, that's when he said, "Well, why didn't you say so? If that's the case, you have to go. Go now!" And he threw them out. Of course, a little later he had a change of heart and went chasing after them, but at least for one moment, Pharaoh understood that the Jewish people were not a people looking for G-d. It was that G-d was looking for the Jewish people. He was taking His chosen nation for Himself to bring them to Mt. Sinai and to set His master plan into motion.

This is the lesson of Passover. The Jewish story is not about a group of people searching for spiritual liberation. It's about us responding to G-d's desire that we be His people.

If we don't convey this understanding of Passover, then it really doesn't warrant eight days every year for the past 3324 years. We need to rediscover the powerful, relevant and contemporary significance of "G-d took us out of Egypt." That's a whole lot different than saying, "We left Egypt." If that were all it was, then Pharaoh would have been right. What business did we have leaving civilization and going into the desert? But that's not what happened. We didn't leave. G-d took us. And that's what Passover is about.

If you look at the words of the Torah that are quoted in the Haggadah you'll see that this is really the message. G-d says, "I came down to Egypt to take you to be Mine. Not a messenger, not an angel, but I Myself." What is that saying? What does that mean? It means that you and I left Egypt not because we wanted to, not because it was our idea. In fact, we didn't really leave so much as we were removed. The Exodus was not our initiative or our plan and it wasn't precipitated by our strength.

The Haggadah tells us another puzzling thing. It says that "if G-d hadn't taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our children's children would still be slaves." What is that saying? Pharaoh dies eventually. Every evil superpower collapses eventually. If we're here to read the Haggadah and Pharaoh is a mummy, then why would we still be slaves? Even if G-d hadn't ever gotten around to taking us out of Egypt, Pharaoh would be gone by now anyway. But that's just the point. If G-d hadn't taken us out, if let's say, we had just outlasted Pharaoh on our own somehow, then it wouldn't be that G-d took us out of slavery. And that is what the whole Passover story is about. That G-d took us out. It was His initiative, His plan, His strength.

Once we know what to look for, it's all right there in the Haggadah. And this is the story that we need to be telling to our children, to our friends, to the world, and to ourselves. We're not looking for G-d. We're responding to the fact that G-d is looking for us.

For more on this topic check out this video here