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The 'Blood Service' of the Paschal Sacrifice

Rav Michael Hattin




As Parashat Bo opens, the plague of locusts descends upon Egypt.  Pharaoh's ministers watch with a combination of astonishment and dread as the sonorous swarms hungrily consume any green vestiges still left in the fields after the awesome plague of hail.  The god king himself, with crumbling resolve but paralyzed will, looks on fearfully but is unable to bring himself to release the Hebrew slaves.  The plague of darkness then quickly follows, plunging the land of Egypt into a palpable gloom that foreshadows the dark death about to be unleashed against her firstborn sons, but with rekindled defiance, Pharaoh banishes Moshe and Aharon from his presence and deafens himself to their last demands.  Before taking his final leave, Moshe announces to Pharaoh the inevitable consequence of his vile obduracy: his own beloved son, the future bearer of the fabled Double Crown, will prematurely perish along with all of Egypt's eldest, but Israel will not be harmed.


Abruptly, the Torah redirects our attention to the preparations of the people in anticipation of their freedom.  Buoyed by the announcement of their imminent liberation, flushed with the promise of springtime, the people of Israel are commanded to henceforth regard the month of the Exodus as their first of months.  From now on, their seasons of national celebration will be counted from that moment, and thus shall the years of their history and their sacred commemorations be marked.




Having so designated the 'first of months,' God commands the people to take unblemished one-year old male lambs on the tenth day of that month to serve as the Paschal Sacrifice ('Korban Pesach').  Each household is to gather together as a group to partake of the sacrifice, which is to be slaughtered on the fourteenth day of the month at afternoon. 


"They shall take from the blood and place it upon the doorposts and the lintels of the homes in which they shall eat it.  They shall eat the flesh on this night, roasted over fire and accompanied by matzot and bitter herbs.  Do not consume it raw or cooked in water, but rather roasted over fire whole, with its head, limbs and innards.  Do not leave over from it until morning, and burn with fire any that remains until daybreak.  Thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes upon your feet and your staff in your hands.  Eat it in haste, for it is the 'Pesach' to God.


"I shall pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall strike all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt, whether of man or of beast, and I shall execute judgement against all of the gods of Egypt, I am God.  The blood shall be your sign upon the houses in which you gather, for I shall see the blood and pass over ('uPhaSaChti') you, and the plague shall not destroy among you when I strike the land of Egypt.  This day shall therefore be remembered by you, and you shall celebrate it as a festival to God; for all of your generations, you shall celebrate it as an eternal commemoration…" (Shemot 12:3-14).




Thus, the rather specific injunctions relating to the Paschal Sacrifice are spelled out.  Some of the unique features of the rite are readily comprehensible.  Gathered as close-knit and cohesive units, the former individuals of Israel, now finally coalescing into a nation, are to partake of its meat in a state of impatient anticipation of the dawn of liberation.  They are to be dressed and ready to leave Egypt at a moment's notice, demonstrating steadfast trust in God's promise even while the destroying angel performs his gruesome work.  Similarly, the lamb is to be roasted whole, eaten with quickly baked unleavened bread and seasoned with nothing more elaborate than bitter herbs, to emphasize the hurriedness of the meal.  There is to be no time expended in the preparation of anything more time-consuming, for God's redemption will unfold in the blink of an eye and Israel must be ready to set forth (commentary of the Rashbam, Rabbi Shemuel ben Meir, 12th century, France and grandson of Rashi, to 12:8-9). Of course, the ceremonial features are multi-dimensional: the matzot recall as well the poor man's bread consumed in bondage, and the bitter herbs evoke the harsh servitude and the sting of the taskmaster's whip. 


Of all of the sacrifice's unusual characteristics, however, it is the 'blood service' that appears most inexplicable.  Significantly, it is the placement of the blood upon the doorposts and lintels that conditions God's merciful passing over, but the text does not at all spell out the meaning of this sign.  Why should the portal be so stained at all?  Why with the blood of the sacrifice and not with some other chromatic marker?  To obfuscate matters more, why is it that only the first Passover in Egypt incorporated this ceremony?  Or, to quote the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who anchors his comments in early Talmudic traditions (Tractate Pesachim 96a):


"The prohibition of consuming the lamb while it is raw is for all subsequent generations, because all of the commands that pertain to the actual body of the sacrifice are eternal.  Conversely, the extrinsic injunctions relating to those that consume it, such as the necessity for loins girded and shod feet, or the placement of the blood upon the portal, applied only to that first Pesach of Egypt.  This distinction is clearly indicated by the rite of the so-called 'Second Passover' that is to be observed by those who in future generations are unable, due to ritual unfitness, to celebrate the sacrifice at its proper time (see Bemidbar 9:1-14).  There, the text indicates that the substitute sacrifice, offered exactly one month after the Passover, is also to be consumed 'with matzot and bitter herbs.  None of its flesh is to be left over until morning, nor are any of its bones to be broken, for AFTER THE ETERNAL MANNER OF THE PESACH SACRIFICE IS IT TO BE PREPARED' (Bemidbar 9:11-12).  [The verse thus specifies that the timeless features of the Pesach Sacrifice are those that pertain to the consumption of its actual flesh]" (commentary of the Ramban to Shemot 12:9).


Thus, all of the procedures that relate to the preparation and consumption of the Pesach Sacrifice's actual flesh are understood to be eternal commands of the Torah, to be executed whenever the Passover ritual is observed.  All of the additional features that frame the ceremony and form such a prominent part of that first celebration in Egypt, are understood to be unique observances to that time and place and are not to be incorporated as part of the Passover's eternal implementation.  No doubt, those 'externals' maintained their hold long after on less punctilious pseudo-practitioners, for the Ibn Ezra  (12th century, Spain) makes it a point to upbraid the otherwise unknown "heretics of Argalan, who to this day perform their Passover seders dressed for travel, after the manner of the Passover of Egypt.  These fools journey forth from their land on the fifteenth day of the month in commemoration of the Exodus!" (commentary to Shemot 12:10).




How then to explain the notorious placement of the blood, without recourse to the fanciful Midrashic approach that links the one lintel and two doorposts to the three forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov (see Shemot Rabba 17:3).  Although there is much to be said for the thematic inclusion of the Patriarchs in the account of the Exodus of their descendents, one need not necessarily introduce them at this particular ritual, as the above Midrash does, in order for their overriding presence to be felt. 


In order to provide a plausible explanation for the curious 'blood service,' let us begin by noting some of the other features of that signal meal.  Firstly, as we noted earlier, the Paschal lamb was consumed by household units that consisted of nuclear families, close relations, and invited guests.  To adopt the Talmudic formulation of the perpetuated principle, the sacrifice may only be consumed by those who have been 'appointed' ahead of time to partake (Mishna Zevachim 5:8).  Secondly, these cohesive groups gathered in their huts and effectively shut themselves in, for none were to leave the secure embrace of kin and the protective heat of hearth until daybreak.  With doorposts and lintel smeared with the paschal blood, the people of Israel were to remain safely indoors, beyond the reach of the destroying angel, "for none of you shall trespass beyond the opening of your homes until morning" (Shemot 12:22).  Thirdly, as the Israelites serenely partook of their meal of redemption, the silent night was repeatedly punctuated by the muffled screams of the Egyptians, as even the fitful sleep of Pharaoh himself was interrupted at the stroke of midnight: "Pharaoh arose at night, he and his ministers and all of Egypt, for there was a great outcry all over the land.  There was not a household among them that did not experience a death" (Shemot 12:30).




Taken together, the three above elements clearly evoke a sense of protected and sealed insularity against the irrepressible shrieks that otherwise shatter the dark stillness.  Israel is safe and secure within, while without, chaos and confusion reign.  As dawn breaks, the screams subside, the bolted doors are flung open, and the people of Israel step into the blinding light of freedom.  The symbolism of the experience is crystal clear: on that night of terror, a nation is being born, and on the morrow they are brought forth.  The threshold, consisting of doorposts and lintel stained with blood, defines the decisive moment in time and space that separates the protection and stillness of the 'womb' from the harsh cries of daylight.  To cross that verge, to pass through that painful portal, is to experience that most excruciating and exhilarating of all experiences: BIRTH.


The boldness of the metaphor also explains its singularity.  The Exodus may be an eternal commemoration of emancipation from tyranny, the Passover Sacrifice a perpetual observance of God's saving intervention, but the particular features that address the theme of parturition must remain unparalleled.  A person and a nation is born but once, and once crossed, the threshold of delivery cannot be retraced or crossed again.  Remarkably, this very theme of birth finds expression in an astonishing vision communicated by God to the Prophet Yechezkel, who addressed the exiled Judeans by the rivers of Babylon some eight hundred years after the events of the Exodus.  Recalling the abject state in which God found their oppressed ancestors in Egypt, the Prophet describes in coarse terms that recall the disarray and inelegance of birth, God's compassionate involvement:


"The word of God came to me, saying: son of man, inform Jerusalem of its abominable conduct…As for your birth, on the day that you were born, your umbilicus was not cut, nor were you washed clean with water, conditioned with salt or swaddled in diapers.  No one had compassion upon you to perform even one of these things to show kindness, for you were instead cast out into the field in your repulsive state on the day that you were born.  I PASSED UPON YOU and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I called to you: 'by your blood you shall live, by your blood you shall live!'" (Yechezkel 16:1-6).




In context, the harsh words of the Prophet Yechezkel are a stinging rebuke to his compatriots, the people of Israel who forgot their humble origins and the God that sustained them from the beginning.  Like an abandoned newborn, they had been forsaken under Egyptian bondage, covered with the mire of clay and mortar and utterly bereft of any human kindness, until God 'passed over' them and raised their spirits with His fortifying words: notwithstanding their cruel and anguished predicament, they would endure, for their dreadful crimson coating would be transformed into the sanguine smudge of survival.


Thus, the Prophet clearly alludes to the experience of the Exodus as the process of the nation Israel being born.  While he sees in hindsight their terrible subsequent treachery, we saw in foresight their moment of great promise.  They are indeed like a newborn child, and thus it is perfectly plausible that the symbolism of that torturous but transcendent moment be denoted upon the threshold of their shelters by that most familiar marker of birth: blood.


Significantly, an extrinsic support for the above analysis is provided by the fact that the quoted passage from Yechezkel was early on incorporated into the traditional readings that accompany the Seder, the well-known festive Passover meal that aims to inculcate the message of the Exodus.  When the text of the Haggada wishes to describe the abject but nevertheless hopeful state of the people as the servitude progresses, it cites Sefer Yechezkel 16:7, with some versions even concluding the reference with our earlier text, "I PASSED UPON YOU and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I called to you: 'by your blood you shall live, by your blood you shall live!"




Even more telling is the Midrash Mekhilta, Parashat Bo Chapter 5 that describes the Paschal Sacrifice and the 'blood service' that earlier seemed so puzzling:


"'You shall guard the lamb until the fourteenth day of this month' – Why did the Torah ordain the taking of the lamb four days before its slaughter?  Rabbi Matya ben Cheresh explained: …the time had arrived for God to fulfill His oath to Avraham to redeem his children, but they had no mitzvot to perform in order to merit redemption…Therefore God gave them the twin mitzvot of the blood of the paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision in order that they might merit redemption, as the verse states 'I passed upon you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I called to you: 'by your blood you shall live, by your blood you shall live!'…Thus, they were commanded to separate the lamb four days beforehand to indicate that one can receive reward only for acts."


This Midrashic source emphasizes that the redemption of the people was a function of the merits that they secured by hearkening to God's commands.  For our purposes, though, it highlights the clear link in Rabbinic thought between Yechezkel's blood of birth on the one hand, and the blood of the Passover sacrifice smeared upon the doorposts and lintels of the Hebrews on the other.  They are, it seems, one and the same.  God's compassionate 'passing over' (veAVaRti veeretz mitzrayim' – Shemot 12:12) in Egypt is paralleled in Sefer Yechezkel by His 'passing upon' ('vaeAVor alayikh vaereikh' – Yechezkel 16:8) the abandoned newborn, in order to save it from the certain death that otherwise would have been its unfortunate fate. 




Of course, to recognize the motif of birth in the events and rituals that lead up to the Exodus, to understand that the moment of Redemption constitutes the turning point of Jewish history, is significant in its own right.  However, the true import of the bold metaphor is actually a function of its larger and later implications: if leaving servitude and embarking on the path of freedom is akin to being born, then experiencing God's ongoing guidance through the wilderness, standing at Sinai and hearing His words, journeying to Canaan and settling it bearing the mandate of ethical monotheism, is the much more involved process leading up to national maturation. 


There are many worlds of experience that separate the newborn infant from the mature and responsible adult, a myriad of choices and consequences that mark the often tortuous route from self-absorbed and godless materiality to selfless spiritual enlightenment.  And at least in this case, what is true of individuals is true of nations as well.  The dynamic progress of the Jewish people towards an apprehension of God and the recognition of their singular mission may have commenced with their first halting steps over that bloodstained threshold, but that was only the beginning of their national story.  That story is still being played out even now, more than three thousand years after the events of the Exodus.  May God grant us the wisdom and the understanding to collectively continue along the path of development and progress culminating in that most coveted of national achievements: ethical refinement and spiritual coming of age.


Shabbat Shalom

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