Passover in Egypt - The Blood of Redemption
In this week's Torah reading, we read of the last of the ten plagues of Egypt, the slaying of all Egyptian firstborn. It is only after this, the most gruesome and severe of the plagues, that Pharaoh allows the Israelites to leave Egypt in order to worship God. This tenth plague differs from the rest not only in its severity but also in the events preceding it. The Israelites no longer sit passively witnessing the mighty hand of God. This time, they must perform the commandment of the Paschal lamb before God's smiting of all the firstborn of Egypt:
"The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: ...
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household...Your lamb shall be without blemish, a yearling male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep watch over it until the fourteenth day of this month; and all the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it towards evening. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it. They shall eat the flesh that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted over the fire - its head with its legs and with its entrails. You shall not leave any of it over until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you shall burn it.
"This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly; it is a passover offering to the Lord. For that night, I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord. And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt" (Exodus 12:1, 3-13).
"Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, 'Draw out and take lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. For when the Lord goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the Lord will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home'" (Exodus 12:21-23).
God commands the Israelites to put blood from the sacrificed lamb on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which the Paschal lamb is eaten. The blood is to serve as a sign protecting the Israelites from the plague of the firstborn. Upon seeing the blood on the homes of the Israelites, God will pass over them and not inflict any harm on those in the home. According to a simple reading of the text it seems as if the blood on the houses is to serve as a sign for God designating the Jewish residences in Egypt. However, such a possibility is philosophically untenable; why would God, the omniscient, need an external sign in order to know which homes are Jewish? Surely everything is revealed before Him! Our sages in the Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishmael (Halakhic midrash of our sages on Exodus) rule out the possibility that the blood is a sign for God on textual grounds:
"And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for YOU" (12:13)- "A sign for you but not a sign for Me."
If the blood is not meant to serve as a sign for God, designating Jewish homes, then what is its function? The answer to this question depends on a disagreement amongst our sages regarding the exact location where the blood was applied:
"Rabbi Natan says [that the blood was applied] on the inside [of the houses]...as is stated 'And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you' (12:13) - A sign for you but not a sign for others. Rabbi Isaac says [that the blood was applied] on the outside [of the houses] so that the Egyptians would see [the blood] and their intestines would fail [they would be horrified]" (Mekhilta).
The sages agree that the blood is not a sign for God. However, they disagree whether the blood was applied on the internal part of the door, facing the people inside the house, or on the external part of the door, facing the Egyptians walking outside. The location of the blood affects our understanding of its function and the ultimate purpose of the commandment of the Paschal lamb.
We will begin our analysis of the Paschal lamb with Maimonide's (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) explanation:
"Scripture tells us that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. Compare 'Behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians,' etc. (Exodus 8:26); 'For every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians' (Genesis 46:34). Some sects among the Sabeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore 'goats' [se'irim]. For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats' flesh. Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu [India] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered. In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: 'You shall bring your offering of the cattle, of the herd and of the flock' (Lev. 1:2). Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins.
"This is also the reason why we were commanded to kill a lamb on Passover, and to sprinkle the blood thereof outside on the gates. We had to free ourselves of evil doctrines and to proclaim the opposite, that the very act which was then considered as being the cause of death would be the cause of deliverance from death. Compare 'And the Lord will pass over the door, and will not let the Destroyer to enter your houses to smite you' (Exodus 12:23). Thus they were rewarded for performing openly a service every part of which was objected to by the idolaters" (Guide for the Perplexed, Book 3, chapter 46).
According to Maimonides, God commanded that the Israelites slaughter lambs because the Egyptians worshipped them. The purpose of the Paschal lamb is to rid the Israelites of these idolatrous beliefs. The sacrifice, and the blood sprinkled on the house, is directed towards the Israelites. The Israelites see the blood on their gates and realize that they were saved because of their slaughtering a lamb, the Egyptian god. Only after rejecting idolatry do they merit being saved. This explanation lends itself to the position of Rabbi Natan the sage, who believes the blood was sprinkled on the inside of the houses. It was aimed at the Israelites, at correcting their skewed beliefs.
A similar idea is expressed by our sages in Midrash Rabba (a compilation of homiletical interpretations of our sages):
"You will find that when Israel were in Egypt, they served idols, which they were reluctant to abandon, for it says: "They did not cast away the detestable things of their eyes" (Ezekiel 20:8). God then said to Moses: 'As long as Israel worship Egyptian gods, they will not be redeemed; go and tell them to abandon their evil ways and to reject idolatry.' This is what is meant by: "Draw out and take your lambs"(12:21), that is to say: Draw away your hands from idolatry and take for yourselves lambs, thereby slaying the gods of Egypt and preparing the Passover. Only through this will the Lord pass over you."
A very different approach is advanced by the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century). He attempts to understand the underlying idea behind the Paschal lamb by analyzing the many laws regarding its slaughter and consumption.
God commands that the Israelites take a lamb on the tenth of the month but sacrifice it only on the fourteenth, four days later. Why was it necessary to take the lamb four days before its actual sacrifice? Why couldn't it have been taken immediately prior to its being slaughtered? The Chizkuni offers the following interpretation:
"Until the fourteenth day"(12:6) - "So that the Egyptians would see their gods tied shamefully and disgracefully in the homes of the Israelites and would hear the sheep squealing with no one to save them."
The sheep were taken four days before their slaughter in order that the Egyptians would know in advance what was being done to their gods.
The Chizkuni also explains the time designated for slaughtering the sheep, "towards evening" (12:6), as follows:
"At the hour in which people congregate, when the laborers return from their work."
The lamb was to be slaughtered in full view of the public's eye, at "rush hour" when all the Egyptians are returning to their homes. The Chizkuni also explains the sprinkling of the blood on the doorposts and the lintel of the houses in a similar manner:
"In case certain Egyptians couldn't come at the hour of slaughtering, they would, nevertheless, see the blood of their gods there [on the doorposts]" (12:7).
It is clear from this interpretation that the Chizkuni accepts Rabbi Isaac's position that the blood was applied on the outside of the houses. The blood is aimed at the Egyptians and not, as implied in Maimonide's interpretation, at the Israelites. The Chizkuni continues his line of explanation also with regard to the laws pertaining to the preparation of the lamb for consumption. He explains the prohibition of eating any of the meat raw as follows:
"Do not eat any of it raw" (12:9) - "If an Egyptian shall come into your home while you are roasting the lamb, do not in fear remove it hastily from the fire claiming that it is well roasted when it is still actually raw...but you should not fear them [the Egyptians]."
The Chizkuni offers a similar interpretation regarding the manner in which the lamb is to be roasted:
"...roasted over the fire; its head with its legs and with its entrails" (12:9) - "Even as it is roasting it must be whole, so that it shall be noticeable that it is their [the Egyptians'] god."
The shape of the lamb must be kept while it is being prepared so that the Egyptians will know that the Israelites are roasting their gods.
The impression one gets from reading the Chizkuni's interpretation is that the Paschal lamb in Egypt was primarily directed at the Egyptians. The sacrifice is part of God's war against Egyptian idolatry, "I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt" (12:12). In contrast to Maimonides, it is not so much the Israelites as it is the Egyptians who must realize the uselessness of their gods and the absurdity of their beliefs. However, there is an additional dimension to the Chizkuni's interpretation.
"All the assembled congregation of the Israelites shall slaughter it [the lamb]" (12:6) - "So that no Jew could cast the blame [for slaughtering the lamb] on his friend stating: 'I did not do this, somebody else did it,' because everybody was party to it."
The whole nation had to take part in the slaughtering of the lambs, the Egyptian gods. This requirement insures that nobody could evade taking responsibility for the act. The Israelites, as a whole, had to take this rebellious and potentially life-threatening initiative. In order to be worthy of redemption, every Israelite must evince courage in defying his Egyptian slavemaster; he must slaughter the Egyptian god before his very eyes. Once the Israelite has mentally freed himself from his subordination and submission to his taskmasters, then he is ready for physical redemption. Thus, there are two distinct and yet intertwined functions in the Paschal lamb. The sacrifice proves to the Egyptians that their gods are worthless, and at the same time obliges the Israelites to prove their courage in defying the Egyptians. Both these goals require that the sacrifice be performed in sight of the Egyptians, outside of the houses.
Our sages, as cited by Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), advance a third approach to understanding the Paschal lamb in Egypt:
"For what reason did God command that the lamb be taken four days prior to its slaughtering, a requirement which does not pertain to the Paschal lamb of future generations? Rabbi Matiah the son of Heresh used to say '...the time has come to fulfill the oath which I [God] swore to Abraham that I will redeem his children. But they were not engaged in any commandments for which they could merit being redeemed as is stated, 'and you were naked and bare' (Ezek. 16:7). Therefore He gave them two commandments, the blood of the Paschal lamb and the blood of circumcision."
The purpose of the Paschal lamb is not to negate Egyptian idolatry or domination. It is not aimed at rejecting heretical beliefs but rather at affirming religious convictions and strengthening the Israelites' bond with God. Disassociating oneself from idolatry, from the depraved culture of Egypt does not make one worthy of redemption. 'Sur mei-ra' - "shunning evil," must be followed by 'asei tov' - "doing good" (see Psalms 34:15). Only after Israel begins performing God's commandments can they be redeemed. Torah is not satisfied with people abstaining from wrongdoing. It demands positive affirmative action. According to the interpretation cited above, these include circumcision and the offering of the Paschal lamb.
Why were these two commandments specifically selected for preparing Israel for redemption? Is there anything which distinguishes these commandments from the rest? I believe the common denominator between these two commandments is that they are both expressions of belonging to the Jewish people. Circumcision is an initiation into the Jewish people. It is a sign of the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham and inducts the newborn baby into this covenantal relationship with God. The Paschal lamb is also an expression of belonging. However, unlike circumcision which relates to the individual baby, the Paschal lamb is a family-centered act. The Torah stresses "a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household" (12:3). It must be eaten within the house, together with the family, and no one must leave the home during the night: "None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning" (12:22). Partaking in the feast of the Paschal lamb is an expression of belonging to the family, of one's connection to the home. It is the Jewish home, the family, which is the core of Jewish existence. It is the passing down of Jewish tradition from parent to child, from generation to generation, that keeps the nation alive and prevents its assimilation. A vibrant Jewish atmosphere in the home generates a tenacious and unwavering Jewish identity. The Jew who leaves the home, breaks off his connection with his family, his roots, is doomed to assimilate in the surrounding foreign culture. He does not have a home to protect him from the "destroyer" and risks suffering a fate similar to that of the Egyptians!
However, this does not exhaust our analysis of the Paschal lamb. A close examination of the details regarding the Paschal lamb in Egypt reveals an even deeper meaning behind the commandment. Many of the laws regarding the Paschal lamb resemble the regulations governing the offering of sacrifices in the temple. Other sacrifices also require a one year-old animal (see Leviticus 12:6, 23:12, Numbers 6:12, 7:15). The requirement that the lamb not be cooked but rather roasted over a fire parallels the burning of sacrifices on the altar (compare Leviticus 1:8). Similarly, the prohibition of leaving over from the Paschal lamb is similar to the prohibition regarding temple offerings, "When you sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to the Lord.... It shall be eaten on the same day; you shall not leave any of it until morning" (Leviticus 22:29, compare ibid. 7:15 ff.). There is one additional similarity. All animal sacrifices in the temple involved the dashing of the slaughtered animal's blood onto the altar (see, for example, Leviticus 1:5). Here, too, God provides instructions regarding the blood. However, in this case, they do not prescribe the dashing of blood onto an altar; there is no altar on which to dash the blood. Rather, the blood must be spread on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. Based on all the similarities we mentioned between the Paschal lamb and sacrifices in general, our sages' commentary regarding the sprinkling of the blood of the Paschal lamb is not surprising:
"We learn from here that they had three altars in Egypt: the lintel and the two doorposts."(Mekhilta on 12:7)
The lintel and the doorposts on which the blood of the lamb was sprinkled served as altars for the Israelites in Egypt. Consequently, their houses must be regarded as temples. It is not the home, per se, which saved the Jews in Egypt. Rather, it is the consecration of the home as a temple which ensured their salvation. The home which revolves around the service of God and the performance of His will protected the Jews from the calamities taking place in Egypt. The Israelites who, by virtue of the spreading of the blood of the Paschal lamb on their doorposts managed to transform their homes into a "mini-temple," were worthy of being redeemed.
Just as the Jews in Egypt transformed their homes into "temples" for the service of God, we, too, must strive to do the same. Indeed, our sages draw a parallel between the Paschal lamb and another commandment related to the home:
"If it is stated regarding the blood [of the Paschal lamb] in Egypt which was only a temporary commandment and was not obligatory during the day and night [but only during the night], and does not pertain to future generations, [that God] "will not let the Destroyer enter," 'mezuza' which is much more stringent since it includes ten appearances of God's names, and is obligatory both during the day and the night, and pertains to all generations, so much the more so [that God] "will not let the Destroyer enter." (Mekhilta)
Similar to the blood of the Paschal lamb which proclaimed the houses of the Israelites to be houses devoted to God, so too the 'mezuza' defines the home as a house of Torah. The 'mezuza,' the appendage of parts of Torah to the doorpost (see Deuteronomy 6:9), establishes the home as a place of holiness, an abode committed to the performance of God's will. It is hoped that just as the blood of the Paschal lamb made the Israelites worthy of redemption from Egypt so too the 'mezuza' and the ideas embedded in it will make us worthy of the future redemption.