by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we are informed that after the plagues of locusts and darkness strike the Egyptians, the first Passover observance is conducted by the Israelites in Egypt. This Passover celebration is followed by the final plague–the death of the first born, and Israel’s departure from Egypt.

The observance of the first Passover in Egypt was significantly different from all future Passovers observed by the Jewish people. In Exodus 12:3, G-d tells Moses and Aaron to speak to the children of Israel and tell them: “Beh’ah’sor la’chodesh ha’zeh, v’yik’choo la’hem eesh seh l’vayt ah’voht, seh la’bah’yit.” On the tenth day of this month, the people of Israel shall take for themselves, each man, a lamb for each father’s house, a lamb for each household. In Exodus 12:6, G-d instructs Moses to tell the people: “V’ha’yah la’chem l’mish’mer’et, ahd ar’bah’ah ah’sar yom la’chodesh ha’zeh,” the lamb shall be for a safekeeping, until the fourteenth day of the month.

Moses and Aaron are then told by G-d to instruct the people, Exodus 12:6: “V’sha’cha’too oh’toh kol k’hal ah’daht Yisrael bayn ha’ar’bah’yim,” the entire congregation of the assembly of Israel shall slaughter the lamb in the afternoon of the fourteenth day of the month. Finally, in Exodus 12:7, the concluding instruction is given to the people of Israel: “V’lahk’choo min ha’dahm, v’naht’noo ahl sh’tay ha’meh’zoo’zot v’ahl ha’mash’kof, ahl ha’bah’tim ah’sher yoch’loo oh’toh ba’hem,” the people shall take some of the blood of the pascal sacrifice, and place it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they will eat.

Instead of telling the Jewish people who are about to begin their grand journey to the land of Canaan to pack clothes for the wilderness, food for their children, and to make certain they have the necessary essentials for the long trek, G-d tells the people of Israel, through Moses and Aaron, that they should publicly set aside a lamb, guard it for four days, slaughter it on the fourteenth of Nissan and mark the doorposts with its blood.

What is the point of these rituals that the children of Israel are asked to perform before they may leave Egypt?

While it is well known that the Egyptians worshiped the sheep as a deity, we learn to our dismay, from an oblique reference in Ezekiel 20:5, that the Jews in Egypt also engaged in animal worship. If the Hebrews were to be saved from slavery and redeemed from Egypt, they needed to purge themselves of all idolatrous thoughts and practices. They not only had to set aside the sacred sheep in full view of their Egyptian masters, they needed to brazenly defy the Egyptians and slaughter the sheep publicly.

But why the blood on the doorposts and the lintels? Does G-d need a sign to know which home is a Jewish home? Absolutely not, and scriptures, in Exodus 12:13, confirms this clearly: “V’ha’yah ha’dam la’chem l’oht ahl ha’bah’teem,” the blood shall be a sign for you upon the houses where you are. Our rabbis deduce from this verse that the blood was placed inside the doorway, and was not visible outside. In order to gain freedom, it was necessary for each former Hebrew slave to purge himself of the pagan belief in sheep. This purification was accomplished by each slave marking his doorposts as a demonstration against Egyptian animal idolatry. These acts of defiance are clear evidence that G-d did not set a demoralized horde of slaves free. He freed men who truly earned their freedom.

In effect, the Torah narrative informs us that not only did the Jews have to go through the ritual of purification, they actually had to go through a transformation from slavery to freedom, from idolaters to monotheists, from timorous and obsequious slaves to a proud and bold free people.

It’s interesting to note that this transformation was not simply a superficial personality adjustment. It was, in truth, a profound religious change. In fact, without the religious change, there could have been no transformation from slavery to freedom.

Transformations of this nature are not unusual occurrences. For those of us who are involved in reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and watching the process of religious growth, we frequently see great personality transformations, hopefully, for the better. Embracing religious observance often means forsaking many negative behaviors and bad habits. Lashon ha’ra–speaking evil suddenly becomes a major concern, respecting parents often becomes a higher priority, providing meals for those who are hungry and charity for those who are in need, visiting the sick and comforting the mourning, helping single people get married, are all part of the behavioral changes that often take place as part of a religious awakening.

Just as the ancient Israelites had to become people who were worthy of freedom, those who embrace religiosity today must likewise become worthy of being embraced by G-d through good actions, compassion and charity. It isn’t the Al-mighty who needs the sign of the blood on the doorposts. It is the Jew who is undergoing transformation who needs the reminder.

Furthermore, the parasha’s message of transformation is directed not only at Jews who have rediscovered their Jewish identity. It is not only the Ba’al Teshuvah who needs to experience transformations. There are times in our lives when each and every Jew needs to look upon him/herself as a would-be Ba’al Teshuvah, a Jew in transition. Every Jew needs, at times, to see the sign on the doorposts, to acknowledge the goodness inherent not only in the spirituality of Judaism, but in the good works of Judaism, and to practice them with greater care and commitment. When a critical mass of the contemporary Jews begin to actually transform themselves in such a manner, then we too will be ready for the Al-mighty to redeem us from our “enslavement.”

May you be blessed.