Torah Thoughts for Today
Thursday, April 01, 2004
Passover: Festival of the Mouth
(A fun essay I wrote a number of years ago for Jewish college students, hope it tickles your intellectual pallet!)
PASSOVER: FESTIVAL OF THE MOUTH.
Have you ever noticed how much of Passover revolves around the mouth?
Maybe you could even call this article, “The Mouth As Symbol of the Month (of Nisan)”...?
Ah, the mouth...that delectable vehicle of pleasure. It drinks, eats, kisses, and talks. It even serves as a lifeline when its partner, the nose, backs up.
But wait a minute. What could all of this have to do with Passover of all things?
Okay, I'll let you in on a bit of cumulative Torah wisdom that took me over ten years to piece together.
The Hebrew word for Passover is PESACH which literally means “PASSED OVER” or “skipped”. That was because according to the Book of Exodus, God acted like a “smart bomb” at “E’ (for Exodus) Hour on the night of the Israelites’ liberation. His precision-guided attack, on his predetermined targets of Egyptian firstborn, needed the safe targets to cooperate. In His low altitude pass over Egypt, He “PASSED OVER” Jewish homes with their signature protective shield of lambs’ blood (run off the Paschal lambs and smeared on all Jewish doorposts, as they were instructed to do).
Enemy targets eliminated. Friendly forces spared, PASSED OVER, that is.
And now for another way of looking at the word “PESACH”: try splitting it. See anything yet? How about a little bit of poetic imagination?
Well, you see, the “PE” (the first part of “SACH”) looks and sounds like “PEH”, the Hebrew word for MOUTH. And “SACH” means simply “to speak”. Get it? “PE” plus “SACH” equals “MOUTH SPEAKS”.
Now for the really serious stuff:
Isn’t it interesting to note how much of PESACH (PASSOVER) revolves around, into, within, and out of the mouth?
We eat matzah and bitter herbs.
We drink four cups of wine.
We read the Song of Songs (which says, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”).
And we recite the HAGGADAH (which means "SAYING" - because God commanded us to say it to our sons and daughters).
Somehow or other, we are expected to internalize and externalize the symbols of the festival - with our mouths. Why?
The answer is both simple and complex: Complex, because these ideas probably have a mystical origin; Simple, because it can be studied in the Bible.
Here is a four-step “crescendo”:
First step: God creates man. He blows into man's nostrils the “SOUL OF LIFE”, and lo and behold, “THE MAN BECAME A LIVING SOUL” (Genesis, chapter 2, verse 7). This is translated by Onkelus (c. 100 C.E.) as “The living soul became in Adam a TALKING SPIRIT”, meaning that the mouth as the vehicle of speech, reveals God’s divinely implanted SOUL. Furthermore, the famous commentator, Rashi (1040 -1105 C.E.), says that all living creatures have some form of soul, but only man, via Adam, was given INTELLECT and SPEECH. (Yes, animals communicate, but only man has a mouth that speaks).
Second step: God tells Adam that he can EAT from all of the trees of the Garden of Eden except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam doesn’t listen to the advice with fatal consequences.
Third step: The failure of Adam necessitates a “tikun”, or “perfection”, and that is a role played by the Jews. At the time of the Exodus, the children of Israel recreate the goals of the first man, Adam. They must perfect the failings of the first mouth in history. They will be, and are, the ones to reconnect God with his creation. At the very point of exodus, it is as if Adam is reborn to both SPEAK the praises of his Maker, and to EAT the diet of health, life, and freedom: PASCHAL LAMB, MATZAH, AND BITTER HERBS. (Animal, vegetable, and mineral combine in our mouths for the greater glory of God!)
Fourth step: Not only are we commanded to eat the items outlined above, but we are also instructed to:
(a) Recite the HAGGADAH, which is written in a question and answer style in imitation of human conversation.
(b) Drink four cups of wine at the Seder eve, in remembrance of four expressions of how God redeemed us.
(c) Sing King Solomon’s Song of Songs on the Sabbath of Passover; some even say it at the conclusion of the Seder. In this song, the love relationship between God and the Jews is allegorized as a love relationship between two human lovers. Hence its talk of kisses, hugs, bosoms, necks, and all the tantalizing symbols of the most intense lovemaking - all as a symbol of God’s intense love for the Jewish people, and hopefully, vice-versa!
(Who would have thought that all of this could be packed into a Pesach package?!)
End of crescendo.
The lesson is that on Pesach, we were born as a nation. The ultimate sign of life is the capacity to speak, and the ability to eat and drink. Life is continued through love; hence, we unite, first via kisses with our spouse in the holiness of marriage. For all of these, a mouth is a must!
The matzah that we eat, the wine that we drink, the Haggadah that we read, the songs that we sing, all are a unique testimony to the bond of intimacy we have with our Maker on Passover - via our mouths!
Have a Wonderful Passover Holiday!