Shabbat Bo: Blood on the door

January 7, 2022 by Jeremy Rosen
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We are all familiar with the Mezuzah, that we place on the right doorpost of our houses and offices.

Many people believe its function is to ward off evil spirits and guarantee protection. But its origins are not obvious. The Shema tells us to bind the words of the Torah on our bodies and homes. But that could just be a metaphorical way of telling us to remember our values and commitment to the Torah. Much debate has gone on over the millennia about the details.

This week we read about the first commandment given to the Children of Israel ( as opposed to individuals beforehand). Moses told them to prepare for the coming plague of the death of all the Egyptian firstborn that will finally lead to the exodus. But first, the Israelites were commanded to prepare for it with the rituals of the first Passover festival. A  lamb or a kid per family had to be set apart three days in advance in public view and defiance of the Egyptians who revered them. Then, when they came to slaughter the animals for a feast, together they were commanded to daub the blood on their doorposts so that when the plague began to take effect, they, as the followers of God would be spared.

Why blood? Blood always had ritual significance. In the pagan world, it was drunk to give power and protection, it was bathed in. But for Judaism blood was sacrosanct, the symbol of the value of life. Besides, to be banal, it was the immediately handy liquid to use without having to dash out to the local hardware store for paint.

Whatever its origins, its purpose here was to differentiate those Israelites who wanted to be identified with the Children of Israel and begin the challenging journey towards physical and spiritual freedom. We know from many sources in the Midrash that many of them had either assimilated or were relatively well off and wanted to stay in Egypt. Indeed, some of the slaves for all that they were under Pharaoh had done well enough to own herds of sheep and cows that they took with them. Business was good for some. Besides, the journey has hazardous.

The blood in the doorpost was not to ward off evil spirits or a guarantee to win the lottery, but rather as a sign of identity and commitment. This commitment was both a national one and a religious one. It meant that each house with blood on its door was an outward expression of Jewish identity for all to see. To send a message to the rest of the world. Throughout the Torah from Abraham onwards, the Divine promise was of protection and long-term success as a people more than as individuals,  if only we would be loyal to the covenant between God and ourselves as described and repeated in the Torah we would eventually overcome hatred.

And this was and is the real message of the Mezuzah. If we think it is there to protect us and bring us good luck, then how do we make sense of all those households who had fixed Mezuzahs yet were destroyed by our enemies throughout our history? And yet here we still are today precisely because of those who stood firm and saw the Mezuzah as a symbol of our survival because we perpetuated the traditions that the Mezuzah symbolizes. That this home wishes to survive as a Jewish home.

Genesis 10-13:17

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