Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
This week we read about the final two plagues, our redemption from Egyptian slavery and the commemoration of these communal memories through the observance of Pesach.
In Bo, as the first born of Egypt are slain in the night, Egypt is irrevocably brought to its knees and the enslavement of generations of Hebrews finally comes to an end. In preparation for this fierce climax, God issues two commandments to the Israelites: first, we must make a Pascal offering, splattering the lamb’s blood on the doorposts and lintels of each Israelite home, and second, no Israelite may leave their home until the sun rises.
Why does God need us to mark our homes? Doesn’t God already know who is an Israelite and who is not? And since God surely knows who we are and should be able to not kill us wherever we are, why are we restricted to our homes?
Let’s assume that God knows all of this and more. A lintel is a cross bar above a door which supports the weight of the wall above. It turns out that in ancient Egyptian architecture, at least the variant in which slaves might have lived, the lintel was visible on the inside of the door rather than the outside. As a child, I always assumed that the blood was on the outside of the house – so that the angel of death would see it before entering the home and move on. The actual text is far more chilling. It suggests that for the angel of death to see the sign it could not stay on the outside, but had to be inside, right next to each and every one of us!
Why? Why not just have the angel pass over from the outside? Why does he have to get so close?
The Torah explains: “And the blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you are …” (Ex 12:13 – italics mine)
It is not enough for us to know that God will rescue us and the angel of death will pass us by. That will not bring redemption. Redemption only comes when we act with God to bring about redemption. Virtually every commandment serves as an active reminder of this truth. We offer ourselves to God through the study of Torah, through worship and through living the values and teachings of our tradition to the best of our understanding and ability. While we may not face imminent death through passivity and complacency, we certainly risk our spiritual deaths – losing a little bit of ourselves with each lost opportunity. God does not need the Pesach offering, but knows that we need the ritual. God is always present for us, but we only connect when we make the effort. This is why we reenact the ritual every Pesach in our homes and in our synagogues.
As for staying indoors through the night, this too was an act – of abstention. Rabbi A.S. Tamrat taught that the reason we were kept at home during the night was so that we would be able to follow the Proverb: “Rejoice not when your enemy falls.” (Prov. 24:17) Four hundred and thirty years in Egypt could easily have led us to become cruel or vengeful, and to take pleasure in observing the suffering of our hated former oppressors.
That, thank God, is not our way. May we always remember to stay true.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras