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‘Days of Awe’ Parashat Tazria – HaChodesh 5782

Over the years, much ink has been spilled connecting the holiday of Purim with the holiday of Yom Kippur[1]. Significantly less ink has been spilled connecting the holiday of Passover with Yom Kippur and this will be the topic of our essay.

On the first day of the month of Nissan, two weeks before the exodus from Egypt, G-d commands the Jewish People to begin preparations for the trip. They were to designate a lamb, to slaughter it, and then to smear some of its blood on the doorposts and the lintels of their homes. Afterwards, they were to roast the lamb, to eat it, and to wait. G-d would do the rest: At the stroke of midnight, He would smite all of the first-born in the Land of Egypt and Pharaoh would send them on their merry way. The Torah explains the logic of smearing the lamb’s blood on their doorposts [Shemot 12:13]: “The blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over (u’fasachti) you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” This verse is problematic. First, if blood on the doorpost is a sign that a particular home is occupied by a Jewish family, the verse should describe the blood as a “sign for G-d” rather than “a sign for you.” Further, why should an omnipotent and all-knowing G-d need any sign at all? Was there concern that without a clear indicator, He would accidentally smite the wrong people?

These questions have been asked and answered by a multitude of commentators. In this essay, we will be guided by the “Ktav v’haKabala”, written by Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, who lived in Germany in the nineteenth century. Rabbi Mecklenburg begins his explanation by asserting that the Jewish People who stood ready to leave Egypt had become so assimilated that they had lost nearly all connection with Judaism. They had jettisoned Abrahamic Monotheism and replaced it with Egyptian Paganism. In order to earn their freedom, they would have to prove themselves worthy of redemption by returning to their spiritual roots. Their litmus test would be the paschal lamb.

The ancient Egyptians worshipped the ram, such that sacrificing a lamb was an affront to the their faith[2]. Any Jew caught slaughtering an Egyptian god would surely be sentenced to death, such that sacrificing the paschal lamb essentially meant choosing G-d over paganism. Rabbi Mecklenburg takes this thought one step further. One of my favorite scenes in a Disney movie is from the first Aladdin movie. Trying to court Jasmine, the daughter of the Sultan, Aladdin pulls up on her roof on a flying carpet and offers to take her out of the palace to show her the world. Jasmine, hesitant, asks Aladdin, “Is it safe?”, to which he answers “Sure – do you trust me?” Jasmine is jolted – she remembers identical words spoken by a “street rat” who had previously rescued her from an angry mob. With new confidence in Aladdin, she climbs aboard the magic carpet. Rabbi Mecklenburg asserts that “the sign of true love is a complete lack of fear and a readiness to put one’s self in mortal danger to perform the will of one’s lover.” In order to merit salvation, the Jewish People had to fearlessly climb onto their own magic carpet, right before the eyes of their erstwhile masters. Not only did each and every family tie down an Egyptian god in their living room for four days and then slaughter it, they brazenly smeared the blood of the lamb on the doorpost outside their homes, in full view of the Egyptian passers-by[3]. By openly thumbing their noses at the Egyptians, the Jewish People placed their own lives in clear and present danger, demonstrating complete trust and devotion to G-d and clearing the way for the exodus.

Let us continue down the path blazed by Rabbi Mecklenburg. How does a person repent from a sin he has committed? The Rambam, writing in the first chapter of Hilchot Teshuva, describes repentance as a three-part process: A person must confess his sin, he must feel sorrow, and he must resolve never to return to his sin. Sometimes, though, a verbal resolution is insufficient. The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [25b] describes certain people whom through their actions have become ineligible to testify in court. These individuals include gamblers of all sorts and people who deal in contraband. Regarding the gambler who shoots dice, the Talmud asks, “When is their repentance accepted, so that they may resume being fit to bear witness? Once they break their dice and repent of them completely, abandoning this occupation entirely, where they do not play dice even without betting.” Compulsive gambling, also known as “Gambling Disorder”, is recognized by psychiatrists as a disease, an addiction that renders the gambler helpless. It is not enough for the gambler to say, “I will never gamble again”. These words, while perhaps sincere, are meaningless. The only way for the gambler to prevent recurrence is by throwing away his dice, by burning his cards, and by cancelling his subscription to the online casino. The Jewish People, after more than two hundred years in Egypt, had lost nearly every vestige of their religion. Other than their lower social status, most of them were nearly indistinguishable from the Egyptians. In order to earn their redemption, they had to separate themselves from Egypt and its paganism. The only way to do this was by crushing their dice – by taking their own former god and mercilessly slaughtering it and then smearing its blood on the doorpost. The blood served as a double sign: You will see the lamb’s blood and will know that the lamb is nothing but a barnyard animal. G-d will see the blood and He will know that you have returned.

Rabbi Mecklenburg brings a proof for his hypothesis from the Aramaic translation of Onkelos. Onkelos translates the phrase “u’fasachti aleichem” not as “I will pass over you” but as “va’echos” – “I will save you” –  as if to say “Because you put your trust in Me, because you have put your lives in danger by destroying the gods of your masters, I will rescue you”. I suggest that the Aramaic “va’echos” comes from the Hebrew “la’chus” – to show mercy. According to the Oxford dictionary, mercy is “compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one’s power to punish or harm.” Mercy means forgiveness. G-d is telling the Jewish People that if they do what is necessary to irreversibly break the chains that bind them to Egyptian Paganism, then He will forgive them [Malachi 3:7]: “Return to me and I will return to you.”

The Torah’s discussion of the paschal lamb is preceded by the commandment of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh). The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar calendar[4], where the month of Nissan is the first month of the year. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, who lived in Frankfurt em Mein in the nineteenth century, teaches that the use of the lunar calendar, as opposed to the solar calendar, runs to the heart of Judaism. The waxing and the waning of the moon is symbolic of a man’s spiritual behavior and his closeness to G-d. Each of us have our high points and our low points. The new moon represents our ability to renew ourselves – to raise ourselves regardless of how low we have fallen and to close the gap between ourselves and the Divine, no matter how far we have strayed. And so it is especially fitting that the Jewish People begin their journey home with these two commandments, the first proclaiming our potential to return to G-d and the second showing us how.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] For instance, Yom Kippur is also called “Yom Kippurim”, which is similar to “Yom k’Purim”, meaning “A Day Similar to Purim”.

[2] Rabbi YY Rubinstein suggested that the Egyptians considered the lamb an earthly representation of Aries, the first sign of the zodiac.

[3] While the common understanding is that the blood was wiped on the inner side of the door (a well-known midrash teaches that the “blood should [only] for you as a sign”), Rabbi Mecklenburg identifies a midrash in the Mechilta that states that the blood should be wiped specifically on the outside of the door “so that the Egyptians should see the blood and have fits”.

[4] The Jewish calendar, while based on the lunar calendar, is regulated by the solar calendar, such that the month of Nissan must always fall in the spring. This requires periodic insertion of an extra month, transforming an ordinary year into a “leap year”.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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