Blood, Sweat, and Tears: Pesach, Milah, and the Total Demand of Avodat HaShem by Rabbi Daniel Fridman

(2018/5778)

By any metric, Pesach is not an easy holiday. Whether it is the many hours we spend getting rid of our Chametz, preparing countless Kosher-for-Pesach meals, or acquiring all of the accessories that we will need for our Sedarim, Pesach certainly exacts its toll, physically, emotionally, and financially. Prima facie, it hardly seems to fit any reasonable description of Zeman Cheirutainu, certainly not in the superficial sense of the term.

Chazal teach that the Jewish people merited redemption from Egypt on the basis of their performance of two mitzvot; offering the Korban Pesach and undertaking Brit Milah[1]. Of course, the common denominator[2] between these two institutions is the very graphic and central motif of blood, which was spread on the doorposts in the case of the Korban Pesach and is an essential element of Milah. What message is inherent in this teaching of Chazal?

On the eve of redemption, the Jew, weary to the bone from generations of brutal oppression, has suddenly been told that the Almighty is poised to liberate His very own chosen people, Bni Bechori Yisrael, his ‘firstborn child.‘ The Jew has recently witnessed Hashem literally overturning His own Creation in bringing justice to the Egyptians and conferring unique status upon the Jewish people. In light of these miraculous events which were being wrought on their behalf, it would have been very easy, and highly tempting, for any member of the Jewish people to come to the mistaken conclusion that this new status of being chosen, selected, and exalted would demand absolutely nothing of them. Hard work and sacrifice, Inui and Avodat Parech, are nothing more than relics of a slavish past.

Amidst the sheer joy of the moment, what would have been so easily lost is that our selection as Hashem’s firstborn was not about superiority for its own sake. On the contrary, the Jewish people was being called to total service, Ki Avadai Haim, to usher a Divinely ordained system of values and ethics into this world. Through orienting the most mundane details and nuances of their lives to Halachah, the Jewish people would serve as the model par excellance for all humankind of what it means for man to live a life in the shadow of, and with reverence for, his Creator. Thus, selection of the Jewish people was a mandate, and an enormously challenging one at that. As a matter of fact, within thirteen months of their departure from Egypt, the Jewish people would come to see their experience in Egypt as comparatively easy to the rigorous demands of a life of Shemirat HaMitzvot, “Zacharnu Et HaDagah Asher Nochal BeMitzrayim Chinam”, “and we remembered the fish that we ate in Egypt at no cost” (BeMidbar 11:5).”[3]

As the Mishnah in Avot teaches, compliance with Halachah may sometimes be achieved by bending our wills to that of our creator, “Aseih Retzono KeRitzoncha”, “make your will like His will” (Avot 2:4); at other times, when even this does not suffice, we have no choice but to simply nullify our wills in the face His demands, “Batel Retzoncha MiPenei Retzono”, “nullify your will to His will” (Ibid.). At the core of our religious experience is surrender.

Perhaps it was precisely this message that Hashem sought to impart to the Jewish people on the cusp of their redemption, through the dual imagery of the blood. The Jewish people’s experience as ‘His firstborn’ would not be characterized by self-indulgence, through lazily awaiting our proverbial reward of “Pi Shenayim” but by the considerable effort required to implement the Divine will. The enormous privilege of being Segulah MiChol Ha’Amim (chosen from all the nations) and the intimacy that comes with being the “Goy Gadol Asher Lo Elokim Kerovim Ailav”, “a great nation to which Hashem is near” (Devarim 4:7) will always be totally contingent upon “Im Shamo’a Tishe’me’u BeKoli VeShamartem Et Briti”, “if you obey Me and keep My covenant” (Shemot 19:5) -- the Bnei Yisrael’s observance of their covenant with Hashem.

Often, the Jewish people would be asked for their sweat, on occasion, for their tears, and when necessary, even their blood. And, when asked, we must be prepared to comply, without hesitation of any kind[4]. The primary human agent of the Exodus, Moshe Rabbeinu himself, had to internalize this message on his journey back from Midyan, when he encountered Hashem -- “VaYehi BaDerech BaMalon VaYifgishaihu Hashem VaYivakesh HaMito”, “now he was on the way, in an inn, that Hashem met him and sought to put him to death” (Shemot 4:24). As Moshe is saved only when the blood of Milah is extracted from his son, he is transformed into the “Chattan Damim”, literally the “bridegroom of blood”.[5] Committing oneself to Avodat Hashem, Moshe learned at this early phase through the Milah blood, demands the ultimate commitment. It was an early and sudden introduction into the ethos of “BeChol Nafshecha, Afilu Hu Noteil Et Nafshecha”“with all of your soul, even if Hashem takes your soul” (Berachot 61b).

As described famously in the Tur[6], the very etymology of Shabbat HaGadol draws precisely on this theme. For, the motif of blood in the Korban Pesach is not merely the blood of the sheep which is spread on the entrance to the Jewish home. The very taking of the sheep was itself a Divine mandate for the Jew to risk his own life in the performance of this first national mitzvah, as they were, in the most public of ways, preparing to slaughter a pagan deity of Egypt. The great miracle, the Neis HaGadol, which gives Shabbat HaGadol its very name, forestalled the need for actual bloodshed; but, the point remains -- the Jew had to be prepared to do so.

Generations after the Exodus, the same motifs continue to express themselves. No Jewish male can complete the conversion process without having the blood of Milah extracted. The blood itself is absolutely essential; a gentile who had undergone a medical circumcision prior to conversion must still have blood extracted[7]. Likewise, the Mechilta contemplated the possibility that a Korban Pesach should be brought immediately as well.[8] In point of fact, one may reasonably read the Maskanah (conclusion) of that celebrated Mechilta not as rejecting the notion of Korban Pesach as an aspect of Gi’ur(conversion) on a conceptual plane, but merely underscoring that the process of conversion brings the individual into the framework of Kelal Yisrael, and thus the timing of the convert’s Korban is rightly the fourteenth[9], in conjunction with the rest of the nation.

In this light, we may reinterpret the rabbinic mandate[10] of reminding a prospective convert of the incredibly difficult national history of the Jewish people as far more than a means of establishing sincerity. It may rather be seen as an articulation of an essential aspect of the Jewish experience from its very inception symbolized by the dual blood of Pesach and Milah: self-sacrifice. In this conceptualization, it is deeply related to the convert’s Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot (acceptance of the yolk of Mitzvot) in general, which, as we have argued, is rooted in the foundation of complete devotion.

As such, with just a bit of reframing, one may find a higher meaning in the enormous investment we all put into preparing for Pesach. It is our way of internalizing the very same message that the blood taught us in Egypt. Before we can properly celebrate Pesach, marking the unique bond forged between Hashem and His firstborn at the Exodus, we must remind ourselves that being chosen demands of us great sacrifice and persistent effort.

Chag Kasher VeSameach.

[1] Shemot Rabbah (Vilna) Parashat Bo 17 --

"Bnei Yisrael were saved from the Egyptians with two bloods, with the blood of the Pesach, and the blood of the Milah, as Yechezkel 16:6 states ‘I said to you, with your blood, live, and I said to you, with your blood, live’ -- with the blood of the Pesach and the blood of the Milah.”

[2] These are the only two positive commandments associated with Kareit, underscoring their pairing. Kareit in conjunction with failure to perform a positive commandment may be more a natural result than a punishment, as it is in the context of violating a prohibition. This approach is consistent with the motif, central to both Milah and Korban Pesach, of entering the covenantal community.

[3] See Yoma 75a, which elaborates on what exactly this statement refers to. Either it refers to the literal consumption of fish, or Arayot (forbidden sexual relations). The basis for the latter opinion is the “Chinam” component of the Pasuk. Certainly, they did not eat fish for free.

[4] Rambam Mishneh Torah Hilchot Milah 3:9 --

“Come and see how stringent Milah is, that Moshe Rabbeinu was not granted even a temporary rest from it, even while he was travelling.”

[5] The textual emphasis on blood itself is pronounced in this brief but critical incident. The Torah does not merely reference the Milah which was performed by Tziporah, but twice highlights the blood which extracted, “Ki Chattan Damim Atah Li”, “for you are the bridegroom of blood for me”, and then, “Chattan Damim LaMulot”, “a bridegroom of blood for the circumcision.”

[6] Tur O.C. 430 -- “and the Egyptians asked Bnei Yisrael what they had it [the animal] for, and they [Bnei Yisrael] responded that it was for slaughter for the Korban Pesach, a commandment of Hashem. And they [the Egyptians] became infuriated, as we intended to slaughter their gods”

[7] See Rambam Hilchot Milah 2:6, along with Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 268:1

[8] Mechilta DeRebbe Yishmael Parashat Bo, Masechta DePischa 15a -- “and when he converts, he should offer the Korban Pesach immediately” (e.g. if he converts on the 8th of Elul, then he would bring the Korban Pesach on the 8th of Elul)

[9] Ibid. -- “The Pasuk of “KeEzrach HaAretz” (Shemot 12:48) comes to teach that he should be like any other resident of the land, and therefore bring the Korban Pesach on the 14th of Nissan.”

[10] Yevamot 47a --

“The Sages taught in a Baraita: With regard to a potential convert who comes to a court in order to convert, at the present time, when the Jews are in exile, the judges of the court say to him: What did you see that motivated you to come to convert? Don’t you know that the Jewish people at the present time are anguished, suppressed, despised, and harassed, and hardships are frequently visited upon them? If he says: I know, and although I am unworthy of joining the Jewish people and sharing in their sorrow, I nevertheless desire to do so, then the court accepts him immediately to begin the conversion process.(Translation courtesy of Sefaria.org)

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