The portion of Bo brings us to the last and most terrible plague to be inflicted on the Egyptians: the death of the first-born. Afterwards, the Israelites will depart and go from slavery to freedom.
The Israelites are commanded to offer a sacrifice that night, a sacrifice known as the Pesach, the pascal lamb, whose blood is to be used to mark the doors of the Israelite dwellings. This will save them, as the verse says: “For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord u-fasach the door and will not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.” (Exodus 12:23). It is the Hebrew word u-fasach from which the name of the festival – Pesach – is derived.
But what exactly does it mean? And why does God need a sign in order to identify the Hebrew homes? The early Sages were troubled by these two aspects of these verses.
Regarding the need for a sign, the very idea of God telling the Israelites to place a sign on their houses so that He would see it and not smite them seemed ridiculous. Therefore the Sages stressed the words “for you” in verse 12:13 – “And the blood…shall be a sign for you.” The sign was meant for the Israelites, for their benefit – certainly not for God.
What then can be the meaning of “When I see the blood”? A midrash explains: ‘As a reward for your performance of the commandment [of slaughtering the lamb and applying the blood] I will reveal Myself and care for you…’ (Mekhilta Pisha 7).
As to the meaning of the phrase u-fasach, many Sages, like Rabbi Ishmael, interpreted it to mean “to care for” or “to protect”. Rabbi Joshua, however, suggests that it should be read as u-fasa – with the third root letter being an ayin rather than a het. That root means “to take a step” or “to skip over”. Therefore it would mean that when killing the first-born, God skipped over the houses of the Hebrews.
These two meanings have remained throughout the centuries. The common English name for the holiday is Passover, which reflects the meaning “to skip”. The meaning “protect”, which is found in many modern translations, is the one I personally favour and believe to be the plain meaning of the text. A destructive force was unleashed in Egypt that night. But for the Israelites, God was not a destroyer but rather a saviour and protector. That is what the verses emphasise again and again, and what we are to remember each year when we celebrate the Pesach.
Although the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, they survived there for hundreds of years because of God’s protection. Nor is it accidental that the Jewish people has survived for so many thousands of years regardless of the dangers we have faced.
When celebrating the festival of Pesach, we are giving thanks for God’s protection during that time of suffering, and during any time when we have been in danger. Perhaps we should stop calling it “Passover” and name it instead “Protection”. Or perhaps we should simply call it “Pesach”, since that is its name and its meaning.
Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer, a past President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, served as interim rabbi at New London for two years. He is a well-known author.