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An Insight into Identity

The Children of Israel had a busy couple of days of preparation leading up to the first Pesah, that which is called in the tradition as “Pesah Mitzrayim – The Passover of Egypt”. They had to slaughter the lamb, collect its blood, paint with it the lintel and doorposts of their houses and afterwards partake of the special Pesah meal all while remaining in their houses until morning – as God had commanded so that He might redeem them: “And the Lord would cross through to scourge Egypt, and He (God) shall see (וראה) the blood on the lintel and on the doorposts, and as for you, none of you shall go out from the entrance to the house until morning.” (Exodus 12:23)

Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva, known in particular, for his pursuit of the pshat or plain meaning of the text, was perplexed by this verse because it conflicted with his theological presumptions.  The following midrash shows us an instance of how Rabbi Yishmael contended with such a problem:

‘And when He shall see the blood’ – Rabbi Yishmael used to say: Is not everything revealed and known before Him (God), as it is said: “He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells with Him” (Daniel 2.22)? And it also says: “Even the darkness is not too dark for You (God),” etc. (Psalms 139.12). How then are we to understand the words: “And when He shall see the blood”? We are to understand it this way: As a reward for their performing these duties He will reveal Himself and protect them as it is said: “And the Lord will pass over the door” …  Another Interpretation: And When He shall see the blood – He shall see the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac, as it is said: “And Abraham called the name of that place A-donai-jireh” (the Lord will see), etc. (Gen. 22.14) … What did He behold? He beheld the blood of the sacrifice of Isaac, as it is said: “God will Himself see the lamb for a burnt-offering” (Gen. 22.8). (adapted from Mechilta de Rabbi Yishmael Parsha 11 Horowitz-Rabin ed. pp. 38-39)

Since Rabbi Yishmael understood God to be omniscient, he could not fathom the idea that God needed to “see” blood on the doorposts to distinguish between an Israelite household and an Egyptian one. Consequently, the act of “seeing” had to mean something different. This midrash offers two alternative interpretations. One asserts that God saw in the people’s observance of His commandments a reason to reward them with redemption, while in the second, the blood on the doorposts served as a reminder to God of the meritorious act of the people’s ancestors, Avraham and Yitzhak, who willingly served God in the past. In this interpretation, the acts of ancestors provided the requisite merits for being redeemed. In both cases, Rabbi Yishmael reinterpreted the act of “seeing” to mean “to have an insight”.

Rabbi Yishmael’s attempt to reconcile his Scriptural reading with his theological presumptions also leaves us with a valuable religious life “insight” into how Jewish character is shaped. Who we are as Jews (and as people) is molded by what we do on a daily basis and on knowing and being cognizant of our past. These two elements are the focus of our Pesah celebration and our ultimate means for redemption.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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