Walking the Walk

And they shall take of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, upon the houses wherein they shall eat it. (Sefer Shemot 12:7)

1. An unusual aspect of the Pesach sacrifice in Egypt
Parshat Bo is notable for a number of its characteristics. It is the penultimate parasha dealing with the redemption from Egypt. The plague of the firstborns is described. This plague brought Egypt to its knees. The Torah describes a broken and humiliated Paroh beseeching Moshe to lead forth Bnai Yisrael from Egypt and to end the devastation of the plague. The parasha also includes the first commandments that were given to Bnai Yisrael as a nation.

Among the commandments described in the parasha are those related to the Pesach sacrifice. This sacrifice was first offered in Egypt. However, it is to be offered annually as an integral element of the festival of Pesach. The initial version of the Pesach sacrifice differed somewhat from the version that was incorporated into normative observance. In general, animal sacrifices include an element of service involving the slaughtered animal’s blood. This element includes sprinkling the blood on the altar. However, the Pesach sacrifice of Egypt was offered without an altar. So, the typical service with the blood could not be performed. Instead, the people were commanded to place the blood upon their doorposts and lintel.

And the blood shall be to you a sign upon the houses where you are. When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague upon you to destroy you, when I smite the Land of Egypt. (Sefer Shemot 12:13)

2. The placement of the blood of the Pesach sacrifice
Rashi, quoting the Midrash Michilta, explains that the blood was to be placed on the inside surface of the doorposts and lintel. It was to be visible to those inside the home but not visible from the outside of the home.[1] Michilta offers two explanations for the requirement that the blood be visible from the inside of the home and not from outside. Ribbi Shimon suggests that the requirement is expressed in the above passage. Hashem tells Bnai Yisrael that He will see the blood and He will spare the household from the plague of the firstborn. In other words, the members of the household will be safe from the devastation of the plague. Ribbi Natan also suggests that the requirement is expressed in the passage. He notes that the passage states that the blood should be a sign “for you”. He understands this to mean that the blood should be a sign and visible to those within the home but not to those outside.[2]

In summary, these Sages agree that the blood was placed on the inside surfaces. However, they disagree on the source for this requirement – each suggesting a different biblical reference. What is the basis of their dispute? What insight might be reflected in their references to different elements within the above passage?

In addition to these two positions that agree that the blood was placed on the inside surfaces of the doorposts and lintel, Michilta quotes a third opinion. Ribbi Yitzchak suggests that the blood was placed on the outside surfaces of the doorposts and lintel. He does not provide a passage to support his position. Instead, as an explanation for his position he offers an enigmatic comment. He explains that by placing the blood on the outside of the homes the Egyptians would see the blood and their “bowels would be severed.”[3] What does Ribbi Yitzchak intend to communicate by this comment?

And Moshe said: It is not fitting to do so; for we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians to Hashem our G-d. If we sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? (Sefer Shemot 8:22)

3. The Pesach sacrifice was a rejection of Egyptian idolatry
Before addressing these two questions, it will be helpful to review the objective or function of the Pesach sacrifice offered in Egypt. Moshe provided an illusion to the function in an earlier conversation with Paroh. After the fourth plague – an infestation of wild beasts – Paroh summoned Moshe. He agreed to release Bnai Yisrael from their labors for a period suitable to serve Hashem. However, he was not willing to meet all of Moshe’s demands. Moshe had told Paroh that they would travel into the wilderness and there offer sacrifices to Hashem. Paroh insisted that the service to Hashem should take place in Egypt. Moshe responded that the Egyptians worshiped the animals that Bnai Yisrael would offer to Hashem. The Egyptians would never tolerate the sacrifice to Hashem of these deified animals.

In his response to Paroh, Moshe omitted mention of an important aspect of the planned sacrifices. From his comments to Paroh, one could conclude that the conflict between these sacrifices and the Egyptians’ religious beliefs was merely coincidental. However, the Sages explain that the contradiction was intentional. Hashem required Bnai Yisrael to renounce the pagan beliefs and practices of Egypt. Toward this end, He directed them to sacrifice the very animals that their Egyptian masters regarded as sacred. Their participation in this service would announce their rejection of Egyptian idolatry and their initiation into service of Hashem.[4]

4. Bnai Yisrael’s redemption was linked to the nation’s spiritual awakening
In Parshat Bo, Bnai Yisrael is directed to offer the Pesach sacrifice. Through this sacrifice the objectives described above were achieved. The sacrifice of the Pesach lamb served as the beginning of Bnai Yisrael’s spiritual redemption from the paganism of Egypt. Their participation proclaimed their spiritual awakening and their emergence from the darkness of Egypt. However, the sacrifice had another dimension. The blood on the doorposts and lintel protected Bnai Yisrael’s homes from the devastation of the plague of the firstborns. The material safety of the people was linked to their spiritual renaissance.

However, the awakening that would save Bnai Yisrael from the plague raging outside their homes and lead to their redemption was to be an intense and meaningful spiritual transformation. A superficial adoption of behaviors would not be adequate. Such a total metamorphosis is complex. It involves a capacity to and willingness to wholeheartedly embrace a new and alien perspective. Also, if this change is to be meaningful, the new perspective that is embraced cannot be vague or poorly grasped. It is only meaningful if its content is a clearly defined and understood value or perspective. Finally, the full embrace of a new and alien perspective requires tremendous intellectual and spiritual courage. This is not achievable by those who are faint-hearted or easily intimidated.

The Sages quoted by the Michilta all agree that the redemption required an authentic spiritual awakening. Also, they agree that this awakening was expressed through the Pesach sacrifice offered in Egypt. However, they differ on the role played by the placement of the animal’s blood in the emergence of the new spiritual personality.

5. Bnai Yisrael were expected to internalize the lessons of the redemption
Ribbi Shimon and Ribbi Natan agree that that blood of the sacrifice was to be placed upon the inside of the homes. Ribbi Natan explains that this requirement is expressed in the passage cited above. The blood was to serve as a sign to those in the home. Therefore, its proper place was inside the home. According to Ribbi Natan the placement of the blood communicated a moving and profound message. It communicated the definition of authentic spiritual change. The salvation of the household depended upon an intimate and personal transformation within its members. They must completely reinvent their world-view and their understanding of reality. They must abandon the familiar pagan perspective in which they had been raised and replace this primitive outlook with a strange new vision of the world. They must embrace Hashem as the only true G-d, as the Creator, and the source of all reality. No purely external, superficial, declaration can suffice for such a transformation. Their salvation depended upon achieving a real and meaningful change. Such a change must be an internal and personal realization.

6. Hashem’s omniscience and the source of true security
Ribbi Shimon explains that this requirement is expressed in the passage previously cited. Hashem must see the blood and then He will spare the members of the household from the plague. Malbim notes that Ribbi Shimon’s position is explained in a later comment of Michilta. Ribbi Yishmael notes that in the passage cited by Ribbi Shimon Hashem states that He will see the blood and spare those inside from the plague. Ribbi Yismael asks, “Does Hashem need to see the actual blood in order to ascertain whether the members of the household should be spared?” He responds that Hashem does not need to see the actual blood. The passage is not to be understood in a rigorously literal manner. Hashem is stating that as a consequence of their participation in the Pesach sacrifice, the household will be spared.[5],[6]

Apparently, according to Malbim, the blood was placed inside to communicate the message that Hashem is omniscient. He is aware of everything – the external and the internal, our outward behaviors and our personal thoughts. The placement of the blood on the inside of their homes challenged people to seek security through a device only meaningful to an omniscient G-d. The forces of destruction outside of their homes would not be kept in abeyance by any manifest characteristic of the home but by the devotion of those inside the house to a service that was invisible from without. According to Ribbi Natan, the blood’s placement communicated a specific message regarding Hashem and the true source of human security. A true spiritual metamorphosis can only be founded upon embrasure of specific values and perspectives. The blood’s placement provided this specific lesson.

In summary, Ribbi Natan and Ribbi Shimon agree that the blood was placed within the homes. However, the sources they cite to support their positions reflect different interpretations of the requirement. According to Ribbi Natan, the blood was placed inside the home to communicate the nature of an authentic transformation. Adoption of external behaviors would not suffice. An intensely personal and intimate reorientation of the household members’ worldview was required. Ribbi Shimon suggests that the placement of the blood was not intended to suggest the nature of the required transformation. Instead, it created the opportunity for meaningful change by providing the content of the new perspective. The fundamental content of this metamorphosis was acceptance of an omniscient G-d, the realization that our safety and security rests with Him alone, and that security is achieved through the fulfillment of His will.

7. Achieving physical and psychological freedom
Ribbi Yitzchak maintains that the blood was placed on the outside of the homes. His only explanatory comment is that by placing the blood on the outside of their homes they would “sever the bowels” of the Egyptians.

Ribbi Yitzchak’s position seems to reflect the comments of another Sage, Rav Chiya the son of Rav Acha, quoted in another Midrash. He explains that the intention of the Pesach sacrifice was to engineer a confrontation between Bnai Yisrael and their Egyptian masters.[7] Akaydat Yitzchak expands upon this idea and explains that the redemption of Bnai Yisrael could not be complete if it only achieved release from bondage. The redemption required that they also break free from the psychological shackles imposed by slavery. They must reinvent themselves as a free people. They must replace the obsequious character of the slave with the confident outlook of the free person. This transformation could only be achieved through the emergent free individual confronting and humbling his former master.[8] This is Ribbi Yitzchak’s message. The one-time slaves were required to stand up to those who fashioned themselves their superiors and “sever their bowels.”

According to Ribbi Yitzchak the placement of the blood provided the people with the opportunity to reinvent themselves as a confident and courageous nation. Only through attaining this new healthy self-image would they be able to fully throw off the false beliefs of their former masters – the beliefs that they themselves had adopted – and embrace a new and revolutionary perspective.

8. Walking the Walk – the elements of meaningful change
These Sages disagree over the proper place for the blood and the message or lesson communicated by the blood’s placement. However, the underlying message regarding meaningful change emerges from their collective views. Each sees in the blood’s placement a different element of authentic change. Ribbi Natan sees in the blood’s placement a lesson regarding the definition of meaningful change. The redemption from Egypt required Bnai Yisrael to progress beyond mere external expressions of change. They were expected to affect a fundamental internal change. Ribbi Yitzchak teaches us through the blood’s placement that values are only meaningful when they are clearly focused and have substance and content. It is not enough to say, “I believe”. We must understand what we believe. Finally, Ribbi Yitzchak reminds us that in order to serve Hashem wholeheartedly, we must free ourselves of subservience to other masters.