What Does Pesach Teach Us About the Art of Giving?
by Rabbi Matt Berkowitz
Next week, Jewish communities across the world will gather around festive seder tables to celebrate the festival of Passover. And if ever there were a Jewish holiday centered on the notion of giving and philanthropy, it is this Festival of Freedom. The very first mishna of Tractate Pesahim teaches, “Even a poor person in Israel does not eat without reclining. And those who distribute tzedakah must ensure that every person should not have less than four cups of wine, even if they are being provided from the community soup kitchen” (Mishna Pesahim 10:1). Indeed we are not free until each person can live and celebrate with dignity. Slavery compels one to focus on one’s own needs; freedom gives one the God-like ability to care for others.
Similarly, this deep notion of caring is reflected in the Hebrew name of Passover, Pesah. Far from being a one-dimensional name, it is multivalent and rich in possible meanings. First and most well-known is the definition of Pesah as “passing over.” Nahum Sarna believes that, “it was through the influence of the Latin Vulgate version that ‘pass over’ became the predominant English rendering…” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch goes a step further explaining that pesah means to step carefully and deliberately over something. The word reflects God’s deliberate and thoughtful action of “stepping ‘planfully’ and deliberately over Israelite homes.” In other words, thought, planning and deliberation are all encompassed in the act of “passing over.”
Second, pesah, in the context of the prophet Isaiah, means protection. Isaiah 31:5 teaches, “Like the birds that fly, even so will God shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting (pasoah) and rescuing.” In this understanding, God actively protects the homes of the Israelites during the night of watching. This gesture is an expression of divine love, a singular act of God’s care for the Israelite nation.
Third, pesah, based on the commentary of medieval exegete Ibn Ezra, means compassion or to have mercy on. Ibn Ezra writes, “because God had compassion on the first born Israelite males as a result of the blood of the lamb, the lamb is rightfully called pesah as it symbolizes God’s mercy.” Such an interpretation is reinforced when one turns to the Akkadian cognate pasahu which means “to soothe or to placate.”
The art of giving involves all three meanings suggested by the word Pesah. It is about thoughtful and deliberate action; it is about protecting both the values we hold dear and the organizations and causes we treasure; and it is about showing compassion within the Jewish world and beyond.
May this year’s celebration give us pause to think about the true meaning of L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalyim, Next Year in Jerusalem – a Jerusalem and Jewish world rebuilt by the generosity of our souls and our satchels.
And if you find yourself in Jerusalem this Passover … Kol HaOt: Illuminating Jewish Life through Art is joining with the Inbal Hotel to give a very special gift to the Jewish world. We are sponsoring a spectacular ILLUMINATED HAGGADAH FAIR, featuring the work of David Moss, Avner Moriah, Matt Berkowitz, Avi Biran, and many other renowned Israeli artists. The event will be held at the Inbal Hotel, 3 Jabotinsky St., Jerusalem, on Chol HaMoed Passover, Thursday, April 17, from 5 pm to 10 pm. Admission is free.
The experience will be styled after a “Jewish Art Salon”, in which several Jewish art facilitators will present explanations to the public on artistic themes in illuminated haggadot, such as Miriam’s Cup; the 4 Questions; ‘You Shall Teach Your Children’, and Slavery and Freedom. Several prominent local haggadah authors – such as Moss, creator of the renowned Moss Haggadah, Noam Zion and Matt Berkowitz – will be at the fair to elucidate the images and to animate the commentary in their works.
Rabbi Matt Berkowitz is JTS Director of Israel Programs, Co-founder of Kol HaOt: Illuminating Jewish Life through Art, faculty member of the Wexner Heritage Program, and author and illuminator of The Lovell Haggadah. He is married to Rabbi Miriam Berkowitz and lives in Jerusalem with their three children, Adir, Rachel and Shira.