Most of us learned the story of the first Pesach when we were children. Often, when we grow up, we neglect to think critically about the stories we were taught when we were young. Here’s something I never questioned as a child.
God tells Moses that each family is to prepare a lamb for the Pesach meal and to paint the blood of the slaughtered lamb on the doorposts and lintel of each Jewish home — “And the blood on the houses shall be a sign for you; when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.”
But did God need to see this sign to know where the Jews lived? Even if the Jewish slaves had lived in neighborhoods with their Egyptian masters (highly unlikely), God would certainly know who lived in each house. Obviously, this sign wasn’t meant for God.
Rashi teaches, “A sign for you and not a sign for others.” God insisted that our ancestors had to take a public stand to earn their redemption. The rabbis tell us the lamb was sacred to the Egyptians. For Jewish slaves to advertise their slaughter of sacred animals would infuriate the Egyptians. The sign on the doorposts meant they were casting their lot with Moses and the God of Israel; our ancestors made a graphic public declaration to themselves and to others of what they believed — that God would keep the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and redeem them — and that belief had to be translated into public action.
At the time of the emancipation of the Jews in Europe, the maskilim (enlighteners) taught that religion should be a private matter pursued at home and in church or synagogue but should not impinge on one’s life as a citizen of the country in which one lived.
But there’s a problem with restricting religious belief and behavior to the private domain. If religion, the system that defines morality, values, and priorities, doesn’t motivate public actions, if it doesn’t affect one’s life “in the street,” it becomes trivial. One’s “religious preference” is no more significant than a preference for chocolate or vanilla ice cream.
If we take our religion seriously, it must venture from the private domain into the street and must shape everything we do. Being Jewish is not limited to prayer, kashrut, holidays, and life-cycle events. Judaism also teaches us about business ethics, our obligations to the poor, labor relations, our duties to our parents and our children, and creating a just and caring society. And even when specific laws are no longer applicable, the values that formed them remain.
When we prepare to speak out about abortion, health care, war and peace, the environment, assisted suicide, crime and punishment — all the public issues we face — we should and must consult the sources of our tradition, for there is no more appropriate method for understanding what is right and good.
At the first Pesach, the blood on the doorposts was a sign for our ancestors. At this Pesach, let the mezuzot on our doorposts be a sign for us, reminding us that we are Jews at home and in the street and that everything we do is bound up in our people’s covenant with God.