Parshat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
In Parshat Bo, the Torah proceeds with a description of the last three plagues – locusts, darkness, and the slaying of the first-born. The final plague afflicted Egypt on the last night – the very night our ancestors left Egypt.
This night came at the culmination of a series of painstaking preparations. The Children of Israel were commanded to take sheep (which were venerated as gods in Egyptian culture), keep the animals in their homes for four days (in plain view of the astonished Egyptians), slaughter them, and use their blood to paint their doorposts. The formal reason for this commandment was that the Angel of Death, who was supposed to strike at the Egyptians, needed to differentiate between the Egyptians and the Jews.
“And I saw the blood, and passed over you, and you shall not be afflicted in the plague…” (12:13)
However, this explanation admittedly seems dubious. The Almighty had performed powerful miracles, like the plague of blood, and the plague of frogs. Why would He need any signs to be able to distinguish between Egyptians and Jews?! After all, the Torah had already spoken at length about how Egyptians suffered from certain plagues, such as darkness and hail, while the Jews were completely spared from their effects, as we read:
“And all of Israel had light in their abodes” (Shemot / Exodus 10:23)
Is the Almighty incapable of knowing who His enslaved people are, and who the oppressive Egyptians are, without any help?
Perhaps, therefore, the commandment to slaughter the sheep and smear their blood in the houses was intended to convey a message to us.
A nation of slaves was deep in the throes of servitude, struggling to cope with the concerns of everyday life. Most were utterly convinced that they would never exit this cycle of torture and suffering. Others wondered if what was occurring was some kind of messianic hallucination that would end disastrously. Others feared the Egyptians’ reaction to their Jewish neighbors’ displays of religious and national independence, especially after having attacked the Egyptians’ religious convictions. It goes without saying that the Egyptians were not cheering as their former slaves slaughtered Egyptian gods before their very eyes.
All of these fears and concerns are certainly understandable. However, after the Almighty had served everything to the Jewish people on a silver platter, having sent nine plagues, on their behalf, to deal a deathblow to the Egyptian economy and the Egyptians themselves, it is as if He was saying to them: “I’ve done My part. Now, it’s time for you to do yours.”
No one can be redeemed against his or her will. People can be helped financially, and it is both necessary and worthwhile to give a person tools, self-confidence, and more. However, no one can make a decision regarding someone else’s freedom. That person alone must make the decision. The commandment to paint the doorposts with blood is tantamount to asking a person with whom he or she will associate and identify. It is not much to ask, but it is the minimum requirement if someone wishes to escape from the cycle of servitude to others.
Therefore, it is for good reason that the Mezuzah has become one of the hallmarks of the Jewish people for generations. This commandment is no more or less important than any other. It is unique, however, in that it determines a home’s identity. The spiritual foundation that breathes life into the act of painting a doorpost is twofold: people need to do things for themselves, and not just depend on others – not even on G-d. Moreover, a nation’s redemption starts with expressing the will to belong to the nation. Those who understand that they have a part to play in their own redemption, and that they need to publicly declare their association with their nation, are able to take the path of redemption.