February 21, 1998
Shabbat Parshat Mishpatim 5758
"And Moses took half the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said: 'Behold the blood of the covenant, which God has made with you in agreement with all these words.' "(Ex. 24:8)
Blood - as for example in circumcision as well as in the various sacrificial offerings - appears to be a major theme throughout the five Books of Moses. Nowhere, however, is a ritual involving blood described in greater detail than in the passage at the conclusion of this week's Torah portion of Mishpatim describing the ratification of the Divine covenant with Israel.
A deeper investigation into this particular "blood" ritual will serve to illuminate significant aspects of biblical theology. Following the Divine Revelation at Sinai and after the extensive details in the portion of Mishpatim devoted to civil and criminal legislation, Moses is commanded, along with Aaron, his two sons Nadav and Avihu, and the 70 elders of Israel, to come up to God. But only Moses is to come near the mountain itself, the others keeping to a distance.
What must now happen, however, is the Covenant itself, or rather the ratification of the Book of the Covenant (Sefer HaBrit) by the Israelites as well as by the Almighty. The first stage of the ratification is the response of all the people to Moses' public reading of the laws with the words: "We will do." (Exodus 24:3) This verbal agreement paves the way for the next step: Moses writes down what he has just read aloud. Afterwards he builds an altar, and whole burnt offerings and peace offerings are sacrificed. The blood of these sacrifices is then collected, half placed in bowls and half sprinkled on the altar. Then Moses reads from the newly written version, which the Torah calls Sefer HaBrit or the Book of the Covenant. Upon hearing it a second time, the nation repeats their previous declaration, "We will do," (na'aseh) but this time they add, "We will obey," or "we will internalize" (v'nishma). (24:7)
With this second declaration, Moses now takes the other half of the blood, which had been placed in the bowl, and sprinkles it on the nation, declaring: "This is the blood of the covenant, which God had made with you in agreement with all these words." (Ex. 24:8)
The great biblical commentator Rashi (Rav Shlomo ben Yitzhak, 1040-1105), cites the Midrashic addition to the verse "And Moses took half the blood and put it into large bowls, the other half he sprinkled on the altar." (Ex. 24:6) "Who divided it? An angel divided it." (Midrash Rabba on Lev. 6:5)
At first glance, this comment seems inscrutable. Why do we have to introduce a divine element in what seemingly involves nothing more than the pedestrian act of pouring half of the contents of one jar or bowl into another bowl? The introduction of an angelic presence immediately alerts us to the fact that it was necessary to divide the blood precisely - down to the hundredth decimal point. Both halves must be exactly equal.
Blood represents commitment and sacrifice, "for the blood is the soul" teaches the Torah (in the context of the prohibition of our eating or drinking an animal's blood). Rav Yitzhak Hutner, great Talmudist of the twentieth century and author of Pahad Yitzhak, suggests that the altar symbolizes the ritual commandments between Israel and God, and the people symbolize the ethical commandments of interpersonal relationships.
Blood, or commitment, is necessary for both sets of laws - and our commitment must be equally divided between our obligations to God and our obligations to our fellow human being. The Jew can suggest - or act as if - his devotion in the synagogue will "cover him" despite his neglecting to provide the Internal Revenue Service with complete disclosure, or despite his insensitivity to human concerns.
Both God and our neighbors require intensive commitment - and the one duty dare not be discharged at the expense of or to the exclusion of the other. Each requires equal time and equal sacrifice.
There is perhaps another symbolism inherent in sprinkling the blood - in precisely equal halves - onto the altar of the Divine as well as onto the Israelites themselves. The Torah may be teaching us that achieving the ideal society as presented in the Book of the Covenant requires a two-pronged effort: God and the nation of Israel. Each must do "his part," neither can dare rely exclusively on the other, for only in working as partners is there a possibility of completing the task and re-creating the world in the Kingship of the Divine.
Only if each partner acts as if everything depends on him/her will nothing get lost in the cracks and will the ultimate goal become realized. We, the Israelites, must act as if everything depends on us; then we must pray as if everything depends on God. And we have the Divine promise that "when the people act in order to become purified, they will always be helped from on High."
God split the Red Sea - but only after the Israelites entered the turbulent waters. God ratified our covenant - but only after we committed ourselves to act on and internalize His commandments. The commitment of each side to an equal degree - human as well as Divine - is absolutely necessary for the enterprise of redemption.
Rabbi Riskin, dean of the Ohr Torah Institutions, is chief rabbi of Efrat.
Click HERE For Rabbi Shlomo Riskin's Shabbat Shalom From Efrat On This Week's Parasha