Bo: Is blood on the door a public or a private sign


Exodus 10:1-13:16

Jeremiah 46:13-28

A tantalizing feature of the biblical text is that sometimes it conceals a detail that we want to know. Some fragment of information becomes important to us as we try to visualize a story, and though we want the information, the text teases us with silence.

Let me show you a small example from this week's reading.

Slaves who want to leave Egypt have to make a bold assertion of their intention to do so. They slaughter a lamb or goat, "and take from the blood and put it on the two door posts and on the lintel of the house" (Exodus 12:7). This first Paschal sacrifice, the communal meal, eaten in a house marked with blood around the door, distinguishes those who have decided to go. Cautious slaves do not take that step to free themselves; they wait and see.

We, today's Jews, trace ourselves back to the slaves who put the blood on their door frames. Some of us descend from those defiant slaves biologically. Some descend from people in all generations who made an equivalent choice. Some have made the choice themselves.

But as I visualize the bold slave, head of a household, decisively marking a door frame, I wonder. Should I picture the slave marking the inside of the door frame, or the outside?

I think I always took for granted that the blood went on the outside of the door. What a defiant act: sacrificing an animal that the Egyptians worship (see Exodus 8:22), and, in case the point still needs making, smearing the blood where everyone can see it. After such an act, one would have no way back. It would amount to an irrevocable sign to the Egyptians. Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra asserts that many interpret the story that way.

One would not lightly make the decision to mark the outside of the door frame with blood. If the Exodus follows, then one goes off into the desert. If no miracles follow, if no Exodus comes, then the overseers will certainly exact a payment in blood. No way to hedge the bet; either blood on the door frame, with whatever that leads to, or no blood, with whatever consequences that brings. The animal's blood now, but one's own tomorrow.

But nothing in the text specifies the outside of the door frame. A few verses later, we find that the blood "shall be a sign for you" (Exodus 12:13). Rashi, emphasizing the words "for you," understands that the blood goes on the inside of the door frame, where "you" can see it, where it can serve as a sign, not for the Egyptians, but for you.

Or else, perhaps, we direct the sign at God, who promises, "I shall see the blood, and I shall pass over you" (Exodus 12:13). Rabbi Ismael observes that God does not need our sign to know where to find us and spare us in striking the firstborn sons of Egypt. We need to make a gesture of loyalty to God (Mekhilta).

Inside of the door frame or outside of the door frame, a sign for you, for them or for God?

Some Jews make their primary gesture toward the other tribes of the world, or in defiance of them. These Jews stand proudly against anti-Semites, or they take part in political activity in a way that they see as Jewish, but they do not necessarily have a private Jewish life. Other Jews make their primary gesture at home; their families see their commitments to Judaism. But they might blend in at the public level, until they appear as "Jews at home, and persons on the street." Still others make their primary gesture in private toward God.

Each one of us should ask the question, where do we make our primary gesture?