A fealty unto death

The Israelites had one amazing, redeeming attribute: the blood of sacrifice.

April 2, 2010 16:21
3 minute read.
A fealty  unto death

torah 88. (photo credit: )


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The Haggada provides a fascinating interpretation of a passage from Ezekiel which has important ramifications today.

During the Seder, we pour the second cup of wine and begin telling the story of our slavery in Egypt, and how God brought us to freedom. At the heart of our account is the explication of the biblical passage describing the declaration made by Israelite farmers as they bring their first fruits to the Holy Temple: “The Aramean [Laban] sought to destroy my father [Jacob]. He [Jacob] descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, and mighty and numerous.” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

On the Hebrew word verav, and numerous, the Haggada cites a poetic passage from Ezekiel (16: 7-9) describing the Israelite experience in Egypt beginning with the word revava, a play on the word rav:

“‘And numerous,’ as it is said [in Ezekiel]: ‘I caused you to increase [revava] as the growth of the field, and you became numerous and grew big, and reached excellence in beauty. Your breasts were fashioned and your hair was grown, yet you were naked and bare…”

The Haggada is telling us that Jacob’s family grew mightily in Egypt, became wondrously beautiful to behold, but were nevertheless naked – bereft of real spirituality and the fulfillment of commandments. This idea matches the explication of an earlier verse: “And the children of Israel were fruitful, swarming and multiplying, and they became very, very mighty; the land became filled with them.” (Exodus 1:7).

There, the Midrash interprets the words “great and mighty” as a negative description. It compares the Israelites to swarming reptiles (sheratzim in Hebrew).

Returning to the Haggada, we see that its author, apparently using poetic license, takes an earlier verse from Ezekiel (verse 6) and attaches it to the end of his negative description of the Jewish people, as though it were the end of the quote; “But when I passed by you and looked at you, I saw that you were rooted in your blood, and I said to you, ‘In your blood shall you live, in your blood shall you live.’”

In so doing, he is declaring in God’s name that the Israelites had one amazing, redeeming attribute; the blood of sacrifice and commitment unto death. It was this that made them worthy of redemption.

After all, didn’t the Hebrew midwives (Shiphrah and Puah, Yochebed and Miriam) defy Pharaoh’s orders to murder innocent Hebrew babies, risking their lives in the process? And did not Yochebed (and Batya, daughter of Pharaoh) place their lives on the line to save baby Moses’ life? And didn’t numerous Hebrews circumcise themselves and then slaughter lambs (Egyptian gods), placing the animals’ blood on their doorposts in order to show the Egyptians that their fealty was exclusively reserved for the one God of the universe? It was precisely because of their blood of commitment that they deserved to be freed from Egyptian servitude!

I once heard Rabbi Moshe Prager, author of the extraordinary memoir Sparks of Glory, describe how on the eve of Pessah in the Kovno ghetto, a dedicated group of Jews defied their Nazi captors and baked matzot in an underground hideout.

When the guards discovered their secret, they began shooting mercilessly, and the blood of the Jewish martyrs mixed into the dough of the matza, turning it bright red. The few Jews who survived cried out together: “Behold, we are now ready and prepared to fulfill the commandment of the paschal sacrifice, although it is with our blood rather than the blood of a lamb. Just as we have the merit of fulfilling our commandment, may You, Lord of the universe, look down on us from heaven and once again declare, ‘When I passed by you and looked at you, I saw that you were rooted in your blood; and I say to you, ‘by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live.’”

Living in modern Israel, I often wake up at night wondering whether we deserve the redemption which God has brought us. And then I remember the valiant young Israelis who readily risk their lives so that we can live here in safety. Their commitment to the land of Israel, the people of Israel and the God of Israel surely justifies our existence here.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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