Pesach, Ritual, Blood, & Nation


Written by Ariel Levi





Part 2 – The Covenant of Freedom


      “and it came to pass in the course of many days; that the king of Egypt died; and the children of Israel groaned from the work, and they cried out. And their cry went up to God because of the work….[1]

      “And God saw the Jewish people, and God knew.[2]


      This perhaps is the beginning of the Exodus. For at the same time there is a shepherd Moses, who is tending the sheep for his father-in-law in a distant far away wilderness. He is leading his flock in the desert and he comes “to the mountain of God, to Choreb[3]

      Let us ask ourselves, what was it like in Egypt at that time. What was it like to be a Jew, what was it like to be a slave? You are part of a people oppressed and downtrodden, and suffering. Your taskmasters are controlled by a man, a pharaoh who may very well be a god. You know that the God of your forefathers has told Abraham that he will redeem you, a promise that seems impossible now. Your masters are strong, powerful and domineering, they have the best army on the planet. They worship powerful gods which you might also worship. You have lived your entire life here, and so have your parents, and parent’s parents. You may want to leave, or perhaps, you are one of those who has given up hope and will perish in the darkness.

      At this very moment, at this same time, God tells Moses:


      'I have surely seen the affliction of My people that are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their pains; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.’” [4]          


      This is God’s prophecy, presenting to Moses a glorious vision. And it was glorious, and brutal, perhaps almost as brutal as it was glorious. The Jews would not arrive in Israel, for a long time. Over forty years later a very small number of the original 600,000 men would arrive at the Promised Land. Almost adult men had perished by the hand of God for the sin of the spies. They would then fight many bitter battles and partially drive out the nations of the land; partially for some of these nations were not completely wiped out, they would remain for hundreds of years as a thorn in Israel’s side. And of course, as we know, the deliverer of the this prophecy, Moses would not arrive at the Promised Land.

      The journey from Egypt to Israel was not merely traveling from one place to another on the map. Rather it was a change of another nature; a change in belief, a change in psyche, a change in being. The setting is not the only thing that changes, so to will the people. And a people transform only when the people transform; when the individuals that make up a nation change.

The people as a nation and the people as individuals do change. Both struggle mightily with the difficult task of leaving the old. It is not easy to change your entire way of life. It is not easy to change your way of relating God; the way of relating to yourself.  One must make the leap from slavery to freedom, family to nation, from an idolatrous self-centered world, to an all-encompassing acknowledgment of reality. Make the leap, and maybe fall; and maybe fall many times.

The Torah tells us that the Jews would fall many times and many ways. They were tied down to their slave mentality.


“ they said to Moses… Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness”[5]




      “the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: 'Would that we were given flesh to eat! We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nought; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all”[6]


      Servitude and lack of responsibility had become a primal part of the Jewish psyche. Freedom would come with much work and at a high cost. There are many hard and harsh steps that the Jewish people took as a people. Exodus was the first; the first step in the maturation process, in the growing up, in achieving a liberty that would only come to fruition much later. It began the Jewish People and it transformed our unique relationship with God. It gave us not only a different perspective on the world, but it evolved our self-definition. It was done in a very specific manner. It was done precisely to address these issues. Every detail will be crucial.






Part 3


Imagine for a moment that you are one of the Jews on the night of the Exodus. You live in Egypt the large prosperous and fertile country. You work hard, long hours. The days are filled with torturous work under cruel and powerful masters. You help keep the land running yet you are unlike those around you. You are a part of a clan, a family, a different family. There is something unique about your people, survivors of an ancient legacy, keepers of an old faith. You have been a slave for over two hundred years. Much of your heritage has been lost, though you do wear the traditional garb and speak the language of your people. It seemed as though this exile would last forever. That is until recently, when he returned, a man who may possibly fulfill the ancient prophecy to Abraham; Moses, the boy who lived, the man who survived and has returned, out of the desert, to save his people.

In the time since he went to Pharaoh the first time, so much has happened. Our God has waged a war against Pharaoh and Egypt and their gods. Their land is in ruins, their spirit crushed, they seem on the verge of letting us leave. Many of us do not want to leave. Or perhaps, more accurately ‘did’ not want to leave. They died during the plague of darkness. We desire to leave, but the desire to stay in this comfortable place, the only place we know is very strong. And of course, there are the Egyptian Gods, that integral part of the culture we have been immersed within for last two centuries.

Now it is the night of Exodus. We have been given two very special commandments circumcision and the pesach sacrifice. Both are difficult, both are different, korban pesach is probably the last thing we will ever do; for the sheep is one of the Egyptian gods, gods of our neighbors and masters, those who wield over us the power of life and death. We have spent the past four days with this sheep tied to our bedpost; we know what we are getting into, the risks we are taking, and the sacrifice. It is a most stressful time, a most difficult time; as we eat our pesach in a hurry, we can hear the death screams of the Egyptian first born, and we wonder in dread, will we last the night.

As we, the reader, skim through the bible, often the intensity and the fright of the Exodus, escape us. We don’t realize just how much was going on, and how traumatic it was. Our projection of freedom smothers the realization of how testing and jarring the actual freedom was.

This prompts two questions. The first being why was the actual freedom so difficult, why couldn’t we just have left Egypt. Gotten up and left. The sacrifice here is great even in the depiction of the parable the girl is told “by your blood you shall live”.

The second question is why are there elements told to the Jewish people during the Exodus that seem to have no relevance to their situation at all. For as a preparation for that night, Hashem commanded the Jewish people in many things that seemingly are only about future generations, and have no personal relevance. We keep Pesach because we are commemorating the Exodus; they weren’t commemorating the Exodus, rather, they were living the Exodus. Why were they commanded to observe the Pesach holiday before there was a Pesach holiday? Why were the Jewish people commanded to eat matzos at the seder night. It was only the next morning when their dough did not have time to rise.

Other aspects also seem out of context. Why are the Jewish people told here about Israel? Why are they told about pesach laws concerning future generations? This may be very important information, but why do they need to know this now. Isn’t the impact of this redemption already enough, why must they shoulder an even greater burden?

To review some of our questions; what is happening in the redemption? Why is it so complicated and seemingly convoluted? Why are so many elements and mitzvos included here that seemingly belong elsewhere? Why are the Jewish people ritualizing their redemption rather than experiencing it? And finally why is the whole experience so traumatic.

Rashi addresses many of these questions one very potent note. He tells us that the Jews were steeped in idolatry and required the commandments of circumcision and the pascal lamb in order to be worthy of redemption. And not only did they require the pascal lamb, but it was done in this way to help the Jewish people break the yoke of idolatry.

Suddenly many points become clear. For at this point the Jewish people were in the process of becoming, the process of achieving independence, the process of freeing themselves from the filth of idolatry. The Exodus was traumatizing, and necessarily so. For only by making the difficult choices, could they become, could they mature into their full stature. Exodus was a catalyst; it was here that the Jews would be forced to draw the line. They would perform circumcision, thereby identifying themselves with the covenant, with their forefather Abraham, with the Jewish people. They would also denounce the “gods” by killing them. Choosing to kill the gods was a choice to grow up.

This choice took place in the proper time, for the girl had grown up. She was ready to take upon herself the mantle; she is ready to be clothed in splendor. The Jewish people make the break, and separate themselves from idols in such a way that it will be final. It will be dangerous, it will be scary, it will be traumatizing. It will be because it must be, for this is the only way to become. The girl will live by her choices, by her blood[7], by her love[8]. As the Jewish doorposts are marked by the slaughter[9], and the Egyptian firstborn are dying, the Jewish people are born.

It is here that the nation begins, and for this reason it is here that the first mitzvos are given. For a Jewish people is not merely a group of people, rather it is a eternal unit. The individuals leaving Egypt are not merely gaining a personal freedom, but rather they are partaking in the redemption of a people. This redemption that is part of a larger context; it is a stage of development in the life of the girl and it will be an event that God will always remember us by[10]. The Jews leaving Egypt are not merely being redeemed, rather they the first to experience Pesach. The first Jews to keep this mitzvah, a mitzvah that would share the character of all mitzvos; it would be commanded to the entire Jewish people for all of time. And it had to be observed in the form that the eternal Jewish people would adopt. For this reason the first mitzvah of the paschal lamb was preceded by the establishing of the lunar calendar. For without a set date, the Egyptian Jews would not be adhering to the eternal Passover. They would be creating the holiday, but they would also they would also be observing it.

But they would also be observing it as the Jews who were experiencing redemption, as the Jews who were casting away their idols. And for this reason there are five aspects of Pesach that they were commanded that we do not keep. These “only for Egypt” Passover themes were necessary and crucial for them, but they are not a part of the undying Torah and Mitzvos. And it was important that this was realized even then. The Sons of Israel had to realize even then that they were a part of something bigger and greater than them. Their personal experience as every Jews takes part in the eternal.

Perhaps this is why in the parable, God washes the blood off of the girl. For the analogy of blood expresses the real trauma that the Jewish people went through and that would continue to haunt them[11]. Therefore when God lifted the people out of Egypt it was just as important for Him to deal with the trauma, for Him to wash off the blood. To bath them in water, to wash away their blood, to anoint them with all and to clothe them in splendor[12] 


[1] Exodus 2:23

[2] Exodus 2:25

[3] Exodus 3:1 This mountain would become the site of the giving of the Torah (The Talmud tells us that the name Horeb connotes _____.)

[4] Exodus 3: 7,8

[5] Exodus 14:11, 12 (spoken at the splitting of the sea)

[6] Dueteronomy 11:4, 6

[7] Ezekiel 16:6

[8] Ezekiel 16:8

[9] Exodus 12:7

[10] See Rashi to Shemos 12:39 “vegam” and Ezekiel 16:60

[11] As we mentioned; the golden calf, the Jews desiring to return to Egypt…

[12] Ezekiel 16:9-14