As we read the story of the Exodus in parashat Bo, we celebrate our freedom.
Avadim hayyinu le-far’oh be-mitzrayim
Our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. But now, we are free.
There is little that is more central to our lives than freedom. The miraculous exodus from Egypt is nothing less than the creation myth of the Jewish nation: the beginning of the story that took us to from ignominy in slavery to the Temple in Jerusalem, the laws of the rabbis, and the Judaism we practice today.
But winning freedom came at a cost. Responding to the suffering we had experienced itself caused excruciating pain.
There is no more vivid example of this than the tenth of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians. Moses, acting as Gd’s agent, had already brought about a series of nine horrors, trying to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites out of Egypt. But the tenth plague was the cruellest: the killing of the first-born child in each Egyptian household. The slaughter against Egyptian families was universal. To divert the Angel of Death, the Israelites put blood from a sacrificial lamb on the doorposts of their home. On seeing this sign, the Angel of Death would pass over their families and spare their firstborn. But the Egyptians were killed by Gd.
Even before the destruction of the firstborn, Gd’s punishment of the Egyptians had involved blood. During the very first plague the River Nile, which alone brought sustenance to the whole Land of Egypt, was turned to blood. So too was all the water in Egypt, according to the medieval Spanish commentator Ramban. The terror and repulsiveness this would have caused, as the water stank and the fish of the Nile died, is hard for us to imagine.
Every year at the seder, when we dip a finger into our glass of red wine to commemorate this first plague, I often worry that we trivialise its terror. Blood can be a strangely terrifying substance. We rely on it for life, yet we cannot help but associate it with injury and death. The fact that the very first plague was the transformation of water into blood suggests to me that the biblical narrative recognised the power that blood can hold over us.
Yet the Torah’s portrayal of blood is not just a negative one. Blood is also described as life-giving:
Ki nefesh ha-basar ba-damhi
For the life of the flesh is in the blood
It is our blood that contains our very lives.
As a result of blood’s vitality, Torah gives us strict instructions on how to treat it. We may not eat it, a prohibition that remains central to the laws of Kashrut today. In Temple times, blood was instead reserved for the priests, who would return it to Gd by pouring it on the altar. The choreography of sacrificing blood was complex and performative, and it was manipulated by means of several techniques: flinging (זרק), sprinkling (הזּה), daubing (נתן), and pouring (שפך or יצק). Perhaps most familiar to us today is the atonement (כפר) carried out by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, which we still re-enact during the Yom Kippur musaf service. The blood was sprinkled in enumerated drops: ‘One, One and One, One and Two’ which we recall with a solemn melody.
Another example of blood’s importance for Jews is the act of brit, when we mark our covenant with Gd through the act of drawing blood, whether circumcision, or the prick of blood sometimes taken from a baby’s foot. Although Torah refers to the blood of circumcision only once, texts from the medieval period onwards mention it notably more often, indicating the importance that the ceremony gradually took on in Jewish practice.
We can see, then, that Torah and the Jewish religion afford blood centrality and great respect. But what reasons are there for blood to be treated in this way? And how might that affect the way in which we understand the plagues against the Egyptians?
In recent centuries, scholars have taken a more critical approach to the Bible, and the text we know today is widely viewed by academics as being composed of various sources, written and compiled over the course of centuries. Importantly, the Bible came into being within an ancient culture that was in conversation with other contemporary civilisations. We can therefore gain more insight into the Torah’s approach to blood by making a comparison with the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, in modern-day Iraq.
The academic Tzvi Abusch explains the different ways in which blood was treated in Israel and Mesopotamia. The blood that the Israelites presented in their sacrifices, he suggests, would bring them protection. Offering blood to Gd would make closer their relationship to the Divine. Jointly making sacrifices with their fellow Israelites also brought the Israelites closer to each other: ‘blood covenants [would] artificially create a tie of consanguinity … by mixing their blood, blood that [represented] themselves’.
By contrast, Mesopotamian sacrifices did not feature blood in the same way. Rather than foregrounding blood as the essence of life, the Mesopotamians’ sacrifices were centred around complete meals, which were offered to gods who were more akin to lords of the manor. The priests would present a feast, which the gods would mystically consume.
Israelites and Mesopotamians treated blood differently not just in their sacrificial practice, but also in their stories of the creation of humankind. In Genesis, Gd forms the first human from the earth:
Va-yitzer Adonai Elohim et ha-adam afar min ha-adamah
God יי formed the human from the soil’s humus
By contrast, in the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, one of the Mesopotamian creation myths, the first human is formed not just of earth, but also from the flesh and blood of a rebellious god who is put to death. Unlike Adam, the first human was made not just from the dust, but from the blood of a divine being.
So, for Ancient Israelites, blood was central to sacrifices, but humans were created from clay, and for Ancient Mesopotamians, blood hardly featured in sacrifices, but was a vital part of how the first humans were created.
Abusch then goes on to suggest that these different attitudes were connected to the most basic functioning of the different cultures. Mesopotamia had an urban society, and a population who were deeply rooted to their land. Blood was a common ingredient to all humans, not just members of Mesopotamian society. It was not needed to bind members of society more closely to each other, nor to connect them to their gods.
By contrast, the Israelites were semi-nomadic, and did not have a self-evident connection to the land where they lived. They depended on rituals of blood to tie them closely to their family groups, to their traditional practices, and to Gd. For ancient Jews, blood was an integral expression of self.
As we read this week’s parashah and recall our freedom from Egypt, may we remember its cost. As the Torah teaches us, blood is our life, and it is central to Jews’ relationship with Gd. Perhaps we should also learn from the Mesopotamians, who literally saw divine blood common to all human beings.
Whenever blood comes to be spilled, may we remember that it contains our life, and the life of every human, and that its every drop is sacred.
Tim Motz LBC rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.