Remember the scenes in “Yentl” with Yeshiva “bochers” (students) pouring over texts, books piled high, going back and forth for hours over a few words of text? I always wondered how they could possibly spend that kind of time, obsessing over a couple of words.
Well, I’ve done, so I get it. I am privileged to be part of an ongoing weekly Torah study group, and we take our sweet Torah time getting through the text. We have discussions like that all the time, and this week’s parasha, Bo, brings one of them to mind. Here it is:
In Bo, the last three plagues are set upon the Egyptians (locust, darkness, and the killing of the first born), and the Israelites are told to get ready to leave. Each family was to slaughter a lamb, it and eat all of it (no leftovers!) and then take some of the blood and “put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they are to eat it” (Ex. 12:7)
So what did we discuss for a couple of sessions? Whether the blood on the lintel was smeared on the inside of the house or the outside. Indulge me… go with me on this little journey and see where we end up.
First we go to the commentators (you didn’t think we were the first to wonder about this, did you?). Rashbam (12th c France) says the blood was on the outside, because he links the word “hamashkof” (lintel) to the word for “looking out”, and indeed modern Hebrew’s word for “view” is “hashkafah”. Sound it out, see how the words are connected? The “shoresh” (root) is the same : sh-k-f and in Torah study, that’s a score.
But Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain, then England) says that the lintel’s related to the word “to look”, (not look out), and he goes into a whole explanation of what houses in Islamic countries were like vis a vis Christian countries, and that the doors were really outer gates, and that the blood was put “on the inner doors, in secret, after the outer gates were closed, at evening, so that no one should see.”
Big deal, right?
Stay with me. Consider the question, “Does the blood go on the outside for all to see, or on the inside, for the family to see?” and answer it in the context of “How do you live your Jewish life?” Was the blood a reminder to the family of what they were about to do, go off into the unknown, with faith in a God and belief in a people that was just forming….or was it for the Egyptians , so the “others” could see what these Hebrews were up to, maybe fear them or be glad they’re going?
And now think about your Jewish life today. Are your Jewish actions done for others to see, or for yourself? How much of what we each do as Jews is in response to the “other”, and how much of it is for ourselves? How much of your Jewish identity is defined by the non-Jewish community? For so many Jews, identity has been formed by all the bad things that have happened to us. There’s a name for it: the lachrymose view of Jewish history (lachrymose means crying or weeping) describing our past as going from disaster to disaster, and our sense of who we are comes from always fighting “them”. I call it “Grandma Tillie’s philosophy” , which is basically, “keep your Jewish head down, because if you lift it up out of the crowd, someone will come along and chop it off.”
I can’t live like that, frankly and neither can our community in the long run. We need positive reasons to be Jewish that come from within, not only negative reasons from outside. And so, in the truest tradition of Talmudic reasoning, I say to Ibn Ezra and Rambam: elu v’elu (this and this), but for different reasons. I say the blood should be smeared on both sides: on the inside, not because we need to do things in secret, like Ibn Ezra says, but because it’s good to remind ourselves of who we are and why we maintain our identities. And we put the sign on the outside, not as a “look out” for bad things, but to declare who we are, with honor and inner strength.