In the climax of the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, Hashem commands Moses to tell the Israelites to sacrifice the Paschal lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts of their houses, in order to save themselves from Makkat Bechorot, the affliction of death on the first-borns. “The blood shall be for you a sign upon your houses; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you.” But why should such a sign be necessary? Hashem is omniscient – he literally knows all; the marking with blood is unnecessary for the simple reason that Hashem needs no indication that Israelites live in the house – he already knows! More curiously, when Moses commands the Israelites, he says “the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the doorposts, He will pass over the door, and will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to harm you.” Why does Moses add mention of a “destroyer” when Hashem had said that He Himself would pass over us?
Many might assume that the Israelites were spared the brunt of the plagues because they were morally superior to their Egyptian neighbors. Our sages, however, inform us that in reality, the Israelites had morally decayed to the point that they were just as deserving of Makkat Bechorot as their Egyptian neighbors. We would thus infer that it was in the merit of performing this mitzvah, to sacrifice the Paschal lamb and smear its blood on the doorposts, that the Israelites were spared from the ignominious fate of their Egyptian neighbors. But one needn’t exercise tremendous insight to know that when dealing with any sufficiently large group of people, there will be natural variance in every attribute, including moral stature. Surely, then, there were perfectly nice Egyptians, who, in a vacuum, would be undeserving of the fate to which their king, Pharaoh, had consigned them. Yet on the night of the plague, “there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” Moreover, only the first-borns of Egypt were afflicted by this plague, and yet “there was not a house where there was not one dead.” Not every household contains a first-born; some first-borns would presumably already have died in the natural course of things, in accidents or illness, or perhaps even in an earlier plague. And yet, there was at least one person in every single house that died.
The miracle of Makkat Bechorot lies not in the affliction of the Egyptians, but in the salvation of the Israelites. Just as not a single Egyptian household was spared, our sages inform us that not a single Israelite household suffered a death that night, even by natural causes. This is the astounding part – no less than 600,000 adult males left Egypt the next day. Even if one excludes the additional, much larger, numbers of women and children who accompanied them, in a population of 600,000, any statistician can inform you that in any given night, dozens of deaths would be expected to occur in the normal course of nature. But miraculously, every single Israelite survived that night. The blood, thus, served not to spare the Israelites from the supernatural plague, but instead to spare them from the normal course of nature. That is why Moses noted that Hashem “will not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to harm you.” Not only would Hashem spare them from the plague that he himself would administer, as he had explicitly stated, but he would also protect them from the “destroyer,” the Angel of Death, who would continue to perform his routine duties in parallel to Makkat Bechorot.
Thus, the simple act of smearing blood on the doorpost served not to remind Hashem to pass over the Israelite houses, but so that in the morning, all could clearly see that nature had ceased to function; only the Egyptians remained subject to its laws. In the light of day, all could see that the Israelites were different from their neighbors – not in that they were morally superior – if they were, it was only barely, by the merit of one paschal offering. Rather, the Israelites merited a suspension of nature’s laws due to their nation’s transcendent purpose – to receive the Torah, live by its precepts, in doing so transmit its moral message to all of humankind. The “great cry” in Egypt was not one of mourning, but of existential crisis – they had erred in assuming that, despite the anomalies they had experienced, a return to nature’s normal course was inevitable. As Pharaoh had stubbornly inquired of Moses, “Who is the Lord, that I should listen unto His voice to let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.”
The Israelites, on the other hand, by performing the seemingly insignificant act of smearing the blood of the paschal lamb on their doorposts, had demonstrated their faith that the covenant made with their ancestors was immutable and everlasting, and that even the laws of nature could and would be suspended in furtherance of that covenant. Today, we have a decision to make. Will we, in derogation of our mission, channel the hubris of Pharaoh, demanding “Who is the Lord that I should listen to His voice?” or will we, in keeping with the faith in Hashem demonstrated by our ancestors, redouble our commitment to His covenant and abide by its precepts, in anticipation of the moment that, in the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Hashem shall be king of the entire world, and on that day, there will be one Lord, and his name shall be one.” The answer, to this author, at least, is clear.
Rabbi Nick Faguet is the Rabbi of OU-JLIC at SMC.