Am Yisrael stood ready, waiting to be redeemed. After nine plagues, the superpower that was once Egypt stood teetering. Hashem was about to deliver the knock-out blow and Am Yisrael were issued their final instructions in preparation for the exodus. Each family was commanded to set aside a lamb, which they were to slaughter on the fourteenth day of the month of Nissan. This Paschal Lamb (Korban Pesach) would be roasted and eaten as part of their last meal as slaves. The lamb was slaughtered not only to be eaten [Shemot 12:7]: “They shall take [some] of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they will eat it.” The lamb’s blood was placed upon the doorposts as a sign [Shemot 12:13]: “The blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses wherever you are, and I will see the blood and I will pass over you, and there will be no plague to destroy [you] when I smite the [people of the] land of Egypt”. In order to be redeemed, Am Yisrael were required to perform but one positive action. As long as they smeared the blood Am Yisrael on their doorposts all the heavy lifting would be performed by Hashem: He would kill the Egyptian first-born, breaking Pharaoh’s back, and opening the flood-gates to freedom. If, on the other hand, Am Yisrael did not comply with Hashem’s command, they would be smitten along with the Egyptians.

The Paschal Lamb came with a number of by-laws. One of these was the prohibition that no piece of meat could be left over. The entire lamb had to be eaten by dawn. This is no trivial matter. I remember how we would order meat from Melbourne and a quarter of a lamb would last a family of eight a fair number of meals. Even the most carnivorous family would have immense difficulty finishing an entire lamb in one meal. Cognizant of this, the Torah allows for multiple families joining as a “chavura” and eating the lamb together [Shemot 12:4]: “But if the household is too small for a lamb then he and his neighbour who is near to his house shall take [one lamb] according to the number of people”. The Talmud in Tractate Pesachim is rife with laws that determine what constitutes a chavura, how a chavura may be joined and exited, and where the chavura may and may not eat.

While we do not offer a Paschal Lamb today[1], one day in the not-so-distant future we will G-d willing return to the performance of this mitzvah. There are only a few differences between the lamb offered the day before the Egyptian Exodus (Pesach Mitzrayim) and the lamb that was offered afterwards and that will be offered in the future (Pesach l’dorot). For instance, we will not have to take the blood of the lamb and smear it on our doorposts. But the brunt of the laws given to Moshe on the eve of the Exodus will still apply: the lamb will have to be finished by dawn and families will join together in chavurot.

Let’s return to Pesach Mitzrayim. I had always thought that every household had to smear the blood of the lamb on their doorpost, as if to say “A Jewish family lives here”. It turns out that this understanding is not necessarily correct. Look carefully at Verse 7. The Torah clearly states that the blood was to be smeared “on the houses in which they will eat it”. This verse appears after the verse that permits chavurot. It would be fair to conclude that if two families joined together as a chavura, the blood would be smeared only on the doorpost of the house in which the lamb was eaten. The visiting family would be absolved of this requirement. This seems to conflict with Verse 13, which states that “the blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses wherever you are”. One solution is that “the houses wherever you are” really means “the houses where you are at midnight”, or “the houses in which you are eating the Paschal Lamb”. However, it is equally plausible to translate “the houses wherever you are” as “the houses in which you live”. According to this explanation, all houses had to be smeared with blood, even those that were empty that night because the family that lived there was eating over by friends.

Rashi offers an interpretation that aligns itself with what I learnt as a child. Quoting from the Mechilta[2], he teaches that “[The blood should be smeared on the houses in which they will eat it] but not on the lintel and the doorposts of a house [used] for [storing] straw or a house [used] for cattle, in which nobody lives.” According to Rashi, “in which they will eat it” does not come to exclude houses in which the lamb will not be eaten. Rather, it comes to exclude buildings that are not used to house humans, such as a garage or a warehouse. According to this explanation, “the houses wherever you are” of Verse 13 means “the houses in which you live, even though you might not happen to be there at that particular time”. All Jewish homes had their doorposts smeared with blood.

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, writing in “Oznayim LaTorah”, disagrees with Rashi. Quoting from the Midrash HaGadol[3], he explains that Am Yisrael slept in the houses in which they ate the Paschal Lamb because it was unsafe to go outside. A visiting family did not have to smear blood on their own doorpost because they would not be in their houses for the entire evening. According to this explanation, “the houses wherever you are” of verse 13 means “the houses in which you are at the time that the Egyptians are smitten”, also meaning “the houses in which you eat the Paschal Lamb”.

I would like to propose a way of understanding the disagreement between Rashi and Rav Sorotzkin, or even better, the disagreement between the Mechilta and the Midrash HaGadol. Why did Am Yisrael have to spend four hundred years[4] enslaved “in a land that was not theirs”? The Torah answers [Devarim 4:20]: “Hashem took you and brought you out of the iron crucible, out of Egypt, to be a people of His possession”. Hashem placed the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov into a fiery crucible in order to forge them into a nation with a shared mission and purpose based upon shared experience. One of the side effects of slavery is a slave mentality. A slave thinks exclusively of his own welfare. In the best case he thinks of his immediate family. He knows of no “community” as it is irrelevant to his day-to-day life. Until now, we have viewed the concept of eating the Paschal Lamb in a chavura as a way to eat the lamb without having any leftovers. But perhaps there is more to a chavura. Perhaps Hashem specifically wanted Am Yisrael to eat in chavurot so that they could experience what it means to see beyond their own families – to see on a national scale. The Midrash HaGadol and Rav Sorotzkin would teach that for this reason blood was smeared only on the doorposts of the homes in which the chavurot met.

Another effect of slavery is that the slave loses his own will. He does as his master commands, when his master commands. While Hashem could take the slave out of Egypt, it would be much more difficult to take Egypt out of the slave. It was critical that Am Yisrael perform a positive action that unabashedly tells the world “I am a Jew, and I serve only Hashem!” The Mechilta and Rashi would teach that for this reason blood was smeared on the doorposts of every single Jew in Egypt, even if they were not home that evening.

Thirty-five hundred years later, we have still not entirely shed our self-image as slaves. We will remain slaves until we get our act together. Wherever we are, we must bond together as one nation under G-d.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzippora Hadara and Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] The Paschal Lamb does not require a Beit HaMikdash, nor does it require spiritual purity. Indeed, the Paschal Lamb was offered long after the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash. The reason we do not offer it today is not at all clear.

[2] The Mechilta, or Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, is a Halachic Midrash on the Book of Shemot. The Mechilta was apparently written during the Talmudic Period.

[3] The Midrash haGadol is a 14th-century compilation of aggadic Midrashim collated from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud and earlier Midrashim.

[4] The original edict was to spend four-hundred years enslaved. At the end of the day, the sentence was reduced to two-hundred and ten years in Egypt, of which about half was spent in slavery.