God’s actions are often inexplicable, but in this week’s Torah reading of “Bo” (Ex. 10:1-13:16) we see Divine actions that can be especially difficult for compassionate people to understand. And yet, the teaching is as or even more important today as it was 3700 years ago.
Continuing with the last three plagues sent upon the Egyptians, this portion reaches its zenith with the 10th plague: the killing of the firstborn Egyptians. The Torah teaches that unlike the imagery from “The Ten Commandments” of an “angel of death” as a green fog going through the homes, God actually passes through the homes Himself to kill the first born. “I shall go through the land of Egypt on this night, and I shall strike every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I shall mete our punishment – I am HaShem. The blood shall be a sign for you upon the houses where you are…” (Ex. 12:12, 13, my emphasis). It is this statement that seems initially to be so troubling.
The verse clearly teaches that God, Himself, directly comes to kill the Egyptian firstborn; not an angel. Since God is killing humans, this leads to two disturbing questions. First, why does God need to kill anyone rather than softening Pharaoh’s heart to let the Hebrews go? We answered that question in last week’s Torah Talk where we saw that all of the ten plagues were to demonstrate the fallacy of the Egyptian gods and goddesses in the eyes of the Hebrews, many of whom had assimilated and adopted Egyptian practices. But there is a larger question looming in the case of this tenth plague:
Why does God, who is all powerful and all knowing, need blood on the door to know if there is a Jewish family inside?
Most people are taught that the blood is put on the doors of Hebrews houses on the Passover night so that God can recognize the Jewish homes and pass over them. But this just doesn’t make sense. If God is all knowing, then why does He need blood to recognize one home from another? But the actual answer is different, and found in the same verses.
“The blood shall be a sign for you…” The blood isn’t for God’s benefit at all, but is required of our ancestors for their own benefit. It is a sign for them, for their growth and wellbeing.
Think about the thoughts and feelings of the ancient Hebrews. They have just seen each of the main nine deities exposed as fraudulent with the first nine plagues. They are filled with awe of HaShem, and yet still scared of their Egyptian taskmasters. Now, Moses has claimed that all the Egyptian firstborn will be killed in one night; and that the Hebrews must put blood on their doorposts and be prepared to leave Egypt the next morning. If they had been scared before, think for a moment about how much more terrified they would be in this scenario.
Their thoughts and fears would have been in a great battle with their faith. On the one hand, if they put blood on their doors they would be saved if God actually came around to take the lives of the firstborn. But if God didn’t deliver them; if no one was killed; then the next morning the Egyptian soldiers would undoubtedly go to every home with blood on the door and kill the family living there. What a conundrum!
The placing of the blood on the door was never a sign for an all-knowing God, it was a dangerous physical action based entirely on faith. By putting a public sign of blood on the door, each person would be actively committing an act of revolution. They would be saying, “Ivri Anochi, I am a Jew! This is a Jewish home fully committed to our faith and traditions and we reject all things Egyptians no matter the apparent dangers!!”
The text is clear: “a sign for you”. This entire drama is all created so that the Hebrews, who have now seen the power of God as opposed to the Egyptian pantheon, will fully stand up and be counted as Jews. The tenth plague forced them to act based on their own faith…knowing that if their faith was misplaced, the Egyptians would persecute them immediately for this public proclamation of faith in the Hebrew God.
What a decision each family had to make. To risk their very lives by declaring their Judaism. And yet they did just that. Our ancestors acted on faith and publicly demonstrated their faith with the blood on the doorposts. It was the ultimate act of rejecting assimilation in favor of tying themselves to the Jewish people. And it is this act of faith that we need to remember now, in these challenging times of increased anti-Semitism.
The importance of publicly demonstrating our Jewishness is a lesson that we all need to take each day, and one that is repeated through other Jewish teachings and holidays besides these Torah verses. Our Sages taught that one of the main differences between the holidays of Purim and Hannukah is that Purim recounts a story of when Haman wanted to kill our bodies, and Hannukah is about when the Seleucid Greeks wanted to kill our Jewish souls. In order to retain our Jewish souls we are commanded to place our Hannukah lights in the window so that they shine to the world. Like our ancestors in Moses’ time who publicly proclaimed their Jewishness by placing blood on their doorposts; at Hannukah we publicly proclaim our faith by placing those lights publicly.
But the deeper teaching of both Hannukah and this tenth plague is that we must always be proud to be Jews, even and especially when it is difficult. We must publicly tie ourselves to Jewish institutions and synagogues; to Israel; and to other Jews. We must stand for each other together, having faith that by doing so, God will always protect us.
In a time when assimilation is prevalent and anti-Semitism is on the rise, this teaching of proclaiming a sign for ourselves that we are Jewish is more important than ever. It is imperative that we always support Israeli products and publicly support Israel and Jewish organizations. We must stand unified as Jews against all forms of anti-Semitism, and teach our children not to hide their Jewishness but to be proud of it. We have an obligation to call our anti-Semites, whether they be local, national, or international; and to stand proudly as Jews. Like our ancestors before us, we must not hide our Judaism in the darkness, but must proclaim it proudly for all the world to see.
The sign of the blood on the doorposts was for our own benefit: a reminder that we need to always be willing to publicly express our Judaism, no matter the potential risks. In this way, we will never need another plague; and in our public proclamations of being Jewish we will ultimately find a deep strength as we embrace our soul’s purpose.
May we all walk and talk as proud Jews, committed to our history, teachings, and practices. And in our expressions of Judaism, may we continue to always grow as wiser and more compassionate human beings who bring more light, hope, and peace into all the world.
Rabbi Michael Barclay January 22, 2021 9th of Shvat, 5781