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This week’s Torah portion, Bo, is the middle of the Exodus story. God has already sent Moses to demand of Pharaoh: “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 7:26, 8:16, 9:1, 9:13). Following Pharaoh’s refusals, there have been seven plagues already. Early in our portion, God once again instructs Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go” (10:3). This time the plague is locusts, so devastating that nothing growing remains in Egypt (10:12–15). Even this is not enough, so God sends darkness, darkness so thick, that you couldn’t see your neighbor (10:21–23).
Pharaoh is almost willing now, but again he changes his mind. So God tells Moses that there will be one more plague, this one so terrible that “there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again” (11:6).
Then suddenly, right at this climactic moment there is an interruption. Chapter 12 begins “The Eternal One said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: ‘This month shall mark for you the beginning of months.’ ” God proceeds to give instructions about the Passover offering: each Israelite shall keep watch over a lamb for the offering until the fourteenth day of the month, slaughter it at twilight, take some of the blood and put it on the doorposts and the lintel of the houses, and eat the roasted sacrifice that same night. The text continues: “That night I will go through the land of Egypt . . . when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you . . . “(12:12–13). Some verses later we read: “You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. . . . And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Eternal, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses’ ” (12:24–27).
How can we understand this peculiar interjection? What are we supposed to learn?
Up to this point in the Exodus story, the Israelites have been passive. Marking their doors with lamb's blood is the first thing that the people of Israel are asked to do for themselves. At first glance the instruction seems to be to put the blood on the outside of their houses—the doorposts and the lintels. But then we read: “This blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you” (12:13). That suggests that the blood is on the inside, visible to the ones who live inside.
Perhaps we were meant to put the blood on both the inside and the outside of our houses. This is both a sign to others about who we are and a sign for ourselves about who we are meant to be. Our freedom begins by a willingness to identify ourselves simultaneously as oppressed and ready to break the bonds of oppression. Then we are instructed to tell the story to our children.
“And you shall explain to your child on that day: ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt’ ” (13:8).
Passover works on many levels at the same time—historical, political, and spiritual. The historical level reminds us that because we were slaves, we must fight against all forms of oppression. The political level is best captured in the famous words of the political philosopher Michael Walzer: “First; that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second; that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.” The spiritual level helps us notice that every person has an Egypt, a narrow place that keeps us from being free. The Haggadah tells us that in every generation each Jew is obligated lirot, “to see“ himself or herself as though he or she really did go forth from each of these Egypts, the historical Egypt, the current political Egypts in our world, and our own personal spiritual narrow places. This is what we are to teach to our children through the way we live our lives.
Maimonides rereads this verse in the Haggadah by reinterpreting lirot, ”to see,” as l’harot “to show.” “In every generation one is obligated to show oneself as one who personally went out of Egypt” (Hilchot Hameitz Umatzah 7:6).We are challenged not just to see ourselves as though we had come out of Egypt, but to show ourselves—to our children and to other people’s children—that we have the courage to come through the bloody doorway into a new life. Wherever we are, we are never completely stuck.
So we return to the blood on the doorposts, both outside and in, as a metaphor of birth. We interrupt the story in order to see ourselves and to show ourselves, and to tell our children: “This is my story, and now it is yours.”
1 Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books)
Rabbi Laura Geller is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, California.