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By Your Blood Shall You Live

Passover (first day) (Exodus 12:21-51 )

by Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen

Yechezkel, 16:6-7: “And I passed over you and I saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said, ‘by your blood shall you live’, and I said, ‘by your blood shall you live’. I made you as numerous as the plants of the field; you increased and grew, and you came to have great charm…and you were naked and bare.
Rashi, Yechezkel, 16:6: sv. In your blood shall you live: “That which it repeated [these words] twice, is because they were redeemed through the blood of the Pesach and the blood of circumcision.”
Rashi, Yechezkel, 16:7 sv. And you were naked and bare: From the Mitzvot.
Rashi, Shemot, 12:6. sv. And it will be for you a guarding:...”R’Masya son of Cheresh says, it says ‘and I passed over you and I saw you’…the oath that I swore to Avraham that I would redeem his sons, and they didn’t have any Mitzvos with which to be busy with so that they [would deserve to] be redeemed, as it says, ‘and you were naked and bare’. And he gave them two Mitzvot; the blood of Pesach and the blood of circumcision, because they were circumcised on that night, as it says, you were wallowing in your blood’…”

The Prophet Yechezkel recounts the story of the Exodus and says that God told the Jewish people that in truth they were not worthy of being redeemed because they had not performed any Mitzvot up to that time.1 Therefore, God gave them two Mitzvot involving blood; the Pascal Lamb offering (Korban Pesach) and Circumcision (Brit Mila). By performing these Mitzvot they would have enough merit to somewhat deserve the incredible kindness of being taken out of Egypt. The commentaries ask why God chose to instruct them in these two Mitzvot in particular.2 One could ask further, why was one Mitzva insufficient?

In order to answer these questions, it is first necessary to asses if there is anything unique about these two Mitzvot.3 The Sefer Hachinuch indeed finds a unique aspect: There are a significant number of negative Mitzvot for which transgression incurs the punishment of karet (being cut off).4 However, there are only two positive Mitzvot for which the punishment is karet for one who fails to observe them; Circumcision and the Pascal lamb offering. What is the significance of these two Mitzvot that makes them unique in this aspect? In a relationship between two people such as marriage, there are certain actions that can damage the relationship but not cause it to be completely destroyed. However, there are things that are so serious that they could indeed end the relationship. Similarly, committing a sin causes a breach in the relationship between a person and God. The significance of the breach is determined by the seriousness of the sin.5 There are some sins which damage the relationship to such a degree that they cause irrevocable harm. These often incur the punishment of karet.6

In contrast, neglecting to perform a positive Mitzva can damage a relationship in that it prevents possible ways of increasing one's closeness to God. However, it is very difficult to envisage how a lack of positive actions can irrevocably damage one's relationship with God. This explains why failure to carry out most positive Mitzvot does not incur karet. Yet Bris Mila and Korban Pesach are different: In order to begin a marriage according to the Torah outlook, a person must undertake a commitment to join in unity with his wife. Without such a commitment there is no genuine relationship - one can do all kinds of nice deeds but, in the Torah's eyes, they are not married until they perform the wedding ceremony prescribed by the Torah. In a similar way, a person needs to make a commitment to God to undertake his relationship with Him. Without such a commitment he cannot begin to have a true relationship.7 Circumcision and the Pascal lamb are both types of covenants with God, whereby a Jew commits to keeping the Torah.

Another connection between these two Mitzvot is that there are two occasions when the Prophet, Eliyahu visits the Jewish people; at a Circumcision and on Seder night, the night when we remember the korban Pesach. This is because Eliyahu, exasperated at the Jewish people's continued sinning, declared that there was no hope for them.8 In response, ordered him to visit every Circumcision which would show that, no matter how much the people may sin, they still keep the covenant between them and God. Similarly, Eliyahu comes at Seder night to see the Jewish people celebrate their birth as a nation.9

The question remains, why is it necessary for there to be two Mitzvot that involve the basic commitment to doing God's will, why wouldn't it be sufficient for one Mitzva to fulfill this role? The answer is that the two Mitzvot represent different aspects of a commitment. Circumcision was first commanded to a single individual, Avraham, to form his covenant with God. Thus, Circumcision represents a person's commitment to his individual relationship with God and all that entails. The Pascal lamb represents our commitment to God as part of the Jewish people. The laws of the Pascal lamb emphasize the importance of fulfilling the Mitzva in groups, stressing the national aspect of the Mitzva. Accordingly, it is necessary to have two forms of covenants; one between the individual and God, and one between a person as a member of the Jewish people, and God.

We can now understand why God gave these two Mitzvot in particular to the Jewish people at the time of their spiritual ‘birth’. It was insufficient for them to merely perform an arbitrary Mitzva, rather they first needed to make a tangible commitment to keeping the relationship with him. Accordingly, God gave them the two Mitzvot that represent that commitment – once they fulfilled them, they now showed that they were willing to be God’s chosen nation and that gave them enough merit to be redeemed. The reason that there were two Mitzvot and not one is that they needed to make the commitment on two levels; one as an individual and one as a part of the nation. Pesach is the time that our nation was born. Every Pesach the energy of spiritual rebirth is at its strongest. Circumcision and the Pascal lamb teach us that it is essential to renew our two levels of commitment to our relationship with God; as individuals who have a responsibility to grow in our personal connection to Him; and as part of the nation. This second obligation is a little less clear than the first, and involves different requirements for different people, but the common denominator is that it requires that we feel a connection to all Jews, no matter what their spiritual level, and a responsibility to help them in both the physical and spiritual realm. Pesach is a time to contemplate whether we are doing enough in this realm and how we can improve. May this year we see a complete return to Jerusalem.

  1. These verses are also quoted in the Haggadah, but not in the order in which they appear in the book of Yechezkel.
  2. See Motsei Shalal Rav, Haggadah Shel Pesach, pp.203-205 for some approaches to this question.
  3. The foundation of the answers to these questions is based on the teachings of Rabbi Uziel Milevsky.
  4. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzva 2. Karet is translated as spiritual excision - there is much discussion as to what exactly this entails but, as its name implies, it involves some form of losing a connection with God. Transgressions that incur karet include, eating bread on Pesach, eating certain forbidden fats, various types of forbidden relations. It should be noted that a person who commits one of these forbidden actions due to a lack of knowledge does not suffer from karet.
  5. There are other factors that do come into effect with regard to the level of punishment. For example, as we said above, one's awareness of Jewish law is very significant in determining the punishment one receives.
  6. It should be noted that teshuva (repentance) can always rectify the damage caused by sins (although in some cases, a degree of suffering may also be necessary).
  7. Of course, this does not mean that he is exempt from keeping Mitzvot, rather it means that he is spiritually hindered in a very serious way.
  8. Melachim 1, Ch.19:10.
  9. It is interesting to note, that two of the most well-observed mitzvos amongst secular Jews, are bris mila and Seder night.

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