January 31, 2009 – 6 Shevat 5769
Annual: Ex. 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 11:4 – 12:28 (Etz Hayim, p. 379; Hertz p. 252)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13 – 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 395; Hertz p. 263)
Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey
Torah Portion Summary
We have come to the climax of the story of the Israelites in Egypt. Pharaoh’s intransigence continues, and Egypt experiences the eighth and ninth plagues – locusts and darkness. God tells Moses that there is only one more plague to come and then Pharaoh will finally let the people go. He instructs Moses to tell the people to request objects of silver and gold from their Egyptian neighbors.
Moses announces the final plague – the death of the firstborn – to Pharaoh, but once again Pharaoh doesn’t listen. God then tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to prepare a lamb to be slaughtered and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs on the 15th of Nisan, the night on which God will strike down all the Egyptian firstborn. Moreover, this date is to begin a seven-day celebration in subsequent years. Moses speaks to the elders and tells them to prepare for the first Passover, and the people do as they have been taught.
The final horrible plague occurs and the firstborn of all Egyptians of all strata of society are dead. Finally, Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and tells them to take the Israelites and go immediately. The Israelites leave Egypt after 430 years.
God gives Moses and Aaron the laws of the Passover festival that is to be observed in future years. He also gives them the laws of the redemption of the firstborn and of tefillin.
1. A Sign for Whom?
And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13)
- “On the two doorposts.” This means on the inside. You interpret it to mean on the inside, but perhaps it means only on the outside? It says, however, “When I see the blood” – i.e. the blood that would be seen by Me and not by others – these are the words of Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Yonatan says: This means on the inside, but perhaps it means only on the outside? It says, however, “a sign for you” – i.e. a sign for you but not a sign for others. Rabbi Yitzhak says: Still I say it means on the outside so that the Egyptians, seeing it, would be cut to the quick. (Mekhilta, Pisha 6)
- Rabbi Ishmael used to say: Is not everything revealed before Him?... What, then, is the force of the words “when I see the blood?” It is only this: As a reward for your performing this mitzvah I shall reveal Myself and protect you. (Mekhilta, Pisha 7)
- When the Holy Blessed One told Moses to slay the paschal lamb, Moses answered: “Lord of the Universe! How can I possibly do this thing? Don’t You know that the lamb is the Egyptian god?” God replied: “As you live, Israel will not depart from here before they slaughter the Egyptian gods before their very eyes, that I may teach them that their gods are really nothing at all.” (Shemot Rabbah 16:3)
- The Egyptians were accustomed to worshipping the zodiacal sign of the lamb. That was why they forbade the slaughter of cattle and despised shepherds... For this reason we were commanded to slaughter a lamb on Pesach and sprinkle its blood in Egypt on the doors outside – to cleanse ourselves of these ideas and demonstrate publicly our rejection of them. This would lead to the conviction that what had been considered lethal was now the source of deliverance. The Lord passed over the doorways and did not allow the destroyer to enter your houses and to do you harm – in reward for your performance of rites repugnant to the worshippers of idols. (Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt)
- The Israelites themselves were responsible in part for deferring their own redemption. First they had to be purified and show by some outstanding act of self-sacrifice that they had repented of their ways. If they were willing to place their lives in danger in order to carry out the wishes of the Almighty, that would be a true token of their love of God. Consequently, God commanded them to slay the Egyptian god under conditions of the widest publicity. First they had to procure the lamb, lead it through the streets without fear of Egyptian reaction, second, to slaughter it family by family, in groups and finally they had to sprinkle its blood on the doorposts for every Egyptian passerby to see, braving the vengeance of their former persecutors. Their fulfillment of every detail of this rite would be a proof of their complete faith in God. In the words of the Sages, the blood would be a token “for you” and not for others. (Haketav Vehakabbalah [Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Germany])
Sparks for Discussion
Why were the Israelites commanded to mark their houses with blood? Even in the unlikely event that they lived in mixed neighborhoods with their Egyptian masters, surely God knew who lived in each house, just as He knew who was firstborn. For whom was this sign intended? Was it meant as an act of defiance? A sign of faith? A test of commitment? Today we place mezuzot on our doorposts. What does this mean to you? Have you ever felt uneasy about making this public declaration of your Jewishness? How do you explain the mezuzah to strangers who ask about it?
2. Let the Sun Shine In
Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts. None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning. (Exodus 12:22)
- This tells us that the angel, once permission to harm is given him, does not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked. (Mekhilta, Pisha 11)
- The reason the Israelites were forbidden to leave their homes during the plague of the first-born was because “If your enemy falls, do not exult” (Mishlei 24:17) – that they should not see the downfall of their enemies, and they should not become revengeful or cruel. (Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamrat, 1869-1931, Lithuania)
- The exodus from Egypt is a symbol of liberation and freedom for all times and in all generations, and “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (20:2) As such, there is no way that the exodus would take place in the night, as if the Jews were stealing away. (Tzeror Ha-Mor (Rabbi Abraham Saba), 15-16th century, Spain, Portugal and Morocco)
- The Holy Blessed One said: If I bring forth the Israelites by night, they [the Egyptians] will say, He has done His deeds like a thief. Therefore, behold, I will bring them forth when the sun is in his zenith at midday. (Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 45)
- Pharaoh said to Moses, “Up, depart from among my people.” Moses replied, “Are we thieves, that you expect us to get out during the dark of night? Thus has the Holy One commanded us: ‘None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning’ – we will not go out except with heads held high, in the sight of all Egypt.” (Tanhuma Bo 19)
- To leave by night is to be surreptitious, unsure of one’s claims, shy of the gaze of others. This narrative must take place in full daylight, challenging all counterclaimants. So powerful is Moses’ insistence on leaving only by day that it culminates in the paradox of Pharaoh urging them to leave, while they remain fixed and unmovable in their houses, from midnight till daybreak. (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus, p. 164)
Sparks for Discussion
Why were the Israelites commanded to remain in their homes until morning? Was it a safety precaution? Was it to prevent gloating? Or, as many commentators suggest, was it important that the Israelites leave Egypt in the full light of day? What does it mean when something is done under cover of darkness? Would the knowledge that events and actions in your life might wind up on the front page of the newspaper or on the internet change the way you behave in any significant way?