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Passing Over

The festival of Passover (in Hebrew: פסח) derives its name from the image of God passing over the houses of the Israelites when smiting the Egyptians (Exodus 12:27). The root פסח appears infrequently in the Bible. When it does, it usually connotes skipping or hopping. Thus, one who limps is referred to as פיסח, because he hops from one leg to the other (see, e.g., Job 29:15).

The same root appears in Elijah's rebuke of the Israelites for switching their allegiances back and forth between God and Ba'al (I Kings 18:21): "Until when will you skip between the branches?" (Or, in the less literal translation of the King James Version, "How long halt ye between two opinions?").

We live in an age of hopping. We skip at the speed of light and the tap of a finger between reading about an earthquake on the other side of the world, calling the plumber, watching the latest episode of our favorite TV series, texting our sister, and ordering the weekly groceries. Our attention jumps between the person sitting in front of us and the bleep of another incoming message. Some claim that all this hopping is making us stupid, self-obsessed and lonely. Others remind us that distractions existed before the internet and that social media have not affected our fundamental ability to pay attention when we put our minds to it.

I think both views are right. It is getting harder to concentrate, but not impossible. As distractions multiply, we must become more selective and tenacious when deciding on what to focus our attention. Some things are best skimmed or skipped. Others require persistence and concentration. There is a time to focus and a time to divide one's attention.

This Passover, I wish us the strength to concentrate on what matters, the courage to pass over what doesn't, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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