In his book Teacher and Child, Haim Ginott tells a story about two boys who get into a verbal fight in school. The boys are yelling at each other and the argument is on the verge of becoming physical. Trying to be helpful, the teacher starts to lecture the boys about the importance of respect and tolerance. Suddenly, they turn to the teacher and say “Don’t just stand there…do something!” Ginott offers the story to demonstrate why it’s important for teachers to show that while words matter, action is sometimes necessary to make a difference. That message is not only relevant to teachers and parents, it’s very much part of the Passover story.
In the Book of Exodus, we read the familiar story of the Ten Plagues, the last of which was the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. In order to prevent the death of their own firstborn, the Israelites are instructed to paint blood on the doorposts of their homes.
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)
That the Israelites had to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the doorposts of their homes has always been a bit of a puzzle. Since God is omniscient, why was it necessary to place a sign on the doors of the Israelites’ homes? Didn’t God, or God’s angelic representative in Egypt, know which homes were occupied by Israelite families? There must be some reason that they were asked to paint blood on their homes. A 19th century German rabbi offers one possible explanation:
The Israelites had to procure the lamb, lead it through the streets without fear of Egyptian reaction, 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. (Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Germany)
In other words, the Israelites were told to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice as an act of defiance of their Egyptian masters. Lambs were worshipped by the Egyptians. Killing a lamb was a sacrilegious act in the eyes of the Egyptians, and would take courage. Rabbi Mecklenburg implies that defying their tormentors would not only be a courageous act, it also be a demonstration of the Israelites’ faith in God. If the people truly believed that God was behind them, then they would have no fear of killing a lamb in public and putting its blood on display for all to see.
It could also be said that requiring the Israelites to paint the blood of the sacrificed lamb on their doorposts was a way of involving the people in the drama of their own redemption. Rather than make them passive participants, essentially observers, in the release from bondage, the Israelites were told to do something. Freedom must be earned, not bestowed. Painting blood may have been only a symbolic act, but it spoke volumes to the Israelites about being partners in securing their own freedom.
That’s a Passover message worth noting. Soon, we’ll gather around the Seder table to tell our people’s story. We’ll fulfill the customary rituals and sing the traditional songs. What does it all say to us? In two words, the Seder summons us to “do something.” It’s not enough to observe the plight of the world, to take note that there are people still enslaved, still oppressed, still suffering, even in our day. After all the rituals, songs and foods, the Seder must serve the purpose of motivating us to do something to make a difference.
I hope that your Seder will inspire you to find a way to be involved in the redemption of the world, for there is much about our world that needs to be redeemed.
Note: This Shabbat is both Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the Jewish month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs) and also “Shabbat Ha-Chodesh.” Shabbat Ha-Chodesh (the Sabbat of THE month) inaugurates Nisan with a special reading from the Book of Exodus (12:1-20), a passage that begins to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. With the beginning of the month of Nisan, we begin the spiritual build up toward the celebration of Passover. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan and Shabbat Ha-Chodesh occur on the same day, and we’ll read passages from three separate Torah scrolls. We’ll read the first six aliyot of Parashat Tazria from the first scroll; we’ll read the verses for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 29:9-15) from the second scroll; and we’ll read the verses for Shabbat Ha-Chodesh as the Maftir from the third scroll.