Understanding The Main Themes Of Passover
What’s The Theme Of Passover? (And Don’t Say Freedom!)
If Passover was really about freedom, then why didn’t God take the Israelites out of Egypt sooner? Why did he have to go through all of the trouble of making plagues? Join Imu as he explores this pivotal question by re-examining the Exodus text, and never read the Passover story the same way again. And check out all of our Passover videos by clicking here.
Hi everyone! You probably found this video because you're looking for the perfect ideas to share at your Seder this year. You want the one about spelling Karpas backwards? How about Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria's magical facial hair? No? These aren't the kinds of divrei torah you were looking for?
At my Seder, I want to talk about the big ideas of Pesach!
What Are the Main Themes of Passover?I want to explore its major themes, and think about what they mean for me, and my family, today. If I don't get to do that, what's the point?
So what I want to do with you today is consider: What are the major themes, the BIG IDEAS of Pesach – the ones you GOTTA relate to at the seder, because these ideas are so important that if you spent your whole time discussing why there are 4 sons, you kinda missed the point. Let's explore them together.
Passover Theme #1What's the number one theme of Pesach? Stop anyone on the street, and they'll probably all tell you the same thing – freedom. The whole reason we celebrate Pesach is because, once upon a time, we were slaves, and then God came and set us free. Right?
Here's what the story of Pesach would sound like, if it were all about freedom: God sends Moshe to Pharaoh, and tells him to announce that the Israelites are being set free. Pharaoh says, "Meh – not interested, but thanks," to which God promptly replies, "That's great – but nobody asked you." God then snaps His metaphorical fingers, and poof – the Israelites are outside Egypt's borders. Freedom! Everyone lives happily ever after.
What actually happens though is that when Pharaoh refuses to let the people go, God sends a plague. And then another, and another, until finally Pharaoh gives the Israelites the green light. And God didn't just wait – God hardened Pharaoh's heart, made sure the Israelites weren't freed too early, to guarantee there would be more opportunities to send more of His plagues. What was so important about the plagues? God actually tells Moses the answer, before Moses ever speaks to Pharaoh. God tells him:
וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי־אֲנִי ה בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת־יָדִי עַל־מִצְרָיִם... (7:5)
When I stretch My hand over Egypt, Egypt will know that I am God.
He's interested...in Egypt. He wants them to know that He is God. The One, All Powerful God.
Imagine if someone claiming to be a prophet of some obscure Arctic god marched into the White House today and demanded sovereignty over Alaska. That's what Moshe would have sounded like, walking into Pharaoh's throne room and demanding the release of the Israelites. Of course Pharaoh dismissed him without a second thought. Now imagine this prophet calling out to this god, and then somehow destroying the power grid, depleting crop reserves, destabilizing the reactors in all the nuclear power plants, and triggering earthquakes that reduce every army base in the country to rubble. There's a decent chance the government will hand over Alaska.
There's also a good chance that this god won't stay obscure for very long. No one in the world can hear about that and ignore that God is the real deal.
The Exodus was the ultimate soapbox. The God of Israel became a household name, recognized as a Power like no other, inspiring awe across the known world. So theme number one? It's recognition of God.
Passover Theme #2The Torah generally does a good job spelling out when each holiday is. We get months, we get dates, we get the number of days – definitely all the information we need. Except, for some reason, that doesn't seem to be enough when it comes to Pesach, since we're also told which season it's in: לְמוֹעֵד חֹדֶשׁ הָאָבִיב, the time of the month of spring. Apparently this fact is also quite easy to forget, as the Torah very kindly reminds us of it a total of four times.
Seems a little overkill. What is it about the spring that's so connected to Pesach?
Well, spring is all about rebirth, right? All the plants that wither and die over the winter, start to come back to life. And a similar thing was happening to the Children of Israel during the Exodus. As a people, they had been dormant for centuries. But suddenly, there was God, helping them become a nation with its own identity and destiny. And, in fact, God decrees that the month of the Exodus – the beginning of spring – will forevermore be considered the first month of the year for the Jewish people, הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים. The springtime, the time of rebirth, is the time of our rebirth as well.
One of the more subtle but powerful ways this idea plays out is in the Korban Pesach. Just before the Israelites get up and go, each household is commanded to slaughter, roast and eat a lamb. But they're also given a strange command – to paint the doorposts of their homes with the lambs' blood. Then, when the time came, they were to rush out the bloodied doors and never look back – just like a baby exiting its mother's womb. This key symbolic moment in the Exodus is all about rebirth. It's about leaving behind a suffocating set of circumstances, and marching toward a horizon of infinite possibilities.
So that was theme number two – rebirth.
Passover Theme #3It's fairly common knowledge that the Torah is concerned with the welfare of the helpless and vulnerable. But these laws aren't just framed as common sense morality. They're framed as responses to our suffering in Egypt. And that history, perhaps more than anything else, compels us to make sure that doesn't happen to anyone under our care.
Just look at the role our history plays in the Torah:
We're commanded גֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ – don't oppress the foreigner – כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃ – because you were a foreigner in Egypt. And further – וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר – show the foreigner love! Why? כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃. You were a foreigner in Egypt.
I'm sure many of us live lives of relative privilege. Personally, I attended good schools, I have a great job, and I'm blessed with an amazing family. When I hear about crises across the world, it's easy to feel like I share almost nothing in common with the people caught in the middle. But that was me, thousands of years ago. And whatever privilege I'm blessed with, I'm never allowed to forget where I once was. Making sure that no one suffers the same way is one of the most important legacies of Passover.
Theme number three: empathy.
What Ideas Does Passover Really Commemorate?So there you have it: Recognizing God, the symbolic opportunity of spring, and acting with empathy are three major takeaways from the story of Pesach.
If you want to spend your Seder focusing on the real meaning of the holiday, aim to bring up at least one of these this year. Bonus points if you hit all three! And if you want to go all out, we've barely scratched the surface here – check out our Passover courses (linked below!) to learn incredible ways these themes weave through the entire Exodus story.
Check out our collection of thought-provoking Passover videos.