Blood is as much part of Pesach, as it is of life itself. How are we to understand it? How do we relate to it? This reflection takes a look at the topic from life to Haggadah.
Just over a week ago, the politician Tobias Ellwood tried to save the murdered policeman, Keith Palmer, outside Parliament. There are images of him, brave and distressed, seemingly with blood on his face. Such images can be distressing. A friend of mine wisely used his Facebook status in the aftermath of the attack to advise people not to look at photos of the victims, teaching us not to vicariously browse the gory suffering of those who can no longer tell us to look away. We should treat blood respectfully, respecting the privacy of others’ vulnerability. We should not bring it up cheaply to shock. Yet, blood also is the tangible stuff of life. The sight of it viscerally hits us with how much we care for our lives and others.
The story of Pesach, the festival approaching in just over a week, is awash with blood.
The Pascal sacrifice is at the heart of the narrative of Exodus, and a reminder of it is at the centre of our seder plate in the form of the animal’s bone (or a vegetarian alternative):
21 Then Moses called to all the elders of Israel, and said to them:
'Draw out, and take lambs for yourselves for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. 22 And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and the two side-posts; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. 23 For the Eternal will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the Eternal will pass over the door, and will not give the Destroyer to come in to your houses to smite you. (Exodus, chapter 12)
Blood is smeared on the doorposts to spare the blood of the Israelite first-born children, while those of the Egyptians will die.
Rabbinic commentaries point to a biblical flow of blood, that bonds us to God, beginning with the Covenant of Circumcision, Brit Milah (Exodus Rabba 17:3) in Genesis or the near-sacrifice, the Akeida (Mechilta on Exodus 12:23) of Isaac by his father.
It is as if the sight of our blood, ritually raised when we do brit milah or mention the akeida, will compel the compassion of our Ultimate parent for us - as the blood on the doorposts did.
The last of the plagues, the killing of the firstborn, recalls the first of them, the Nile turning to blood, and reminds us of how Pharaoh ordered the killing of Israelite babies. Blood in Exodus and at Pesach simultaneously conveys compassion and hostility: we can see both how blood indicates our shared humanity and how as humans we often pit ourselves against each other as if the “enemy” must bleed in our place.
The Talmud teaches us to not see our blood as redder than others- perhaps in part because we so often do.
There is in the Haggadah, the book for our seder, another mention of blood that is often awkwardly skirted over. Near its beginning a line from the prophet Ezekiel is mentioned in which God addresses the people of Israel, personified as a female, and proclaims:
When I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you, “live in spite of your blood”. Yea, I said to you: “Live in spite of your blood” (Ezek. 16:6).
It is not difficult to understand why we often skirt over this detail on the night of Pesach as we all sit together preparing for a meal! There is a misogyny in the denigration of the blood of birth (and elsewhere in chapter 16 of Ezekiel) and perhaps more to the point, we tend not to talk about bloody birth at the dinner table. Yet, this verse can teach us that we are loved because of our human, bloody vulnerability, that blood is the very stuff of life. This chapter of Ezekiel with its focus on birth and maturation also reminds us that we and those around us are changing, physically and emotionally, every moment, and if we don’t pay attention to these changes we lose people, and ourselves - we eviscerate identities caring for the abstract rather than ever-changing flesh and blood. The value of life is an abstract; our relationship with the person next to us, and the details of their life and being, is real.
My father, Jack Stanley, died two months ago. A month before he died, I walked into the living room to find him, disoriented having fallen to the floor, with blood coming out of his forehead and his knees. There’s nothing like blood for telling you how much you love and care for another human being. It richly marks our consciousness with their vulnerability and our responsibility to them.
So we should not abuse the spectre of blood for the sake of a vicarious rush of blood; we should not enjoy the brush with ultimate questions it brings, or make people feel too uncomfortable.
We should raise the sight of blood , caringly and sensitively, but we should not pretend that we do not bleed, or that those close to us do not bleed, or that innocents are not currently bleeding. The place for these questions may or not be our seder tables, but I will try to at least ask them of myself in the next week or two: Who close to you do you care for and how can you care for them more finely? Which innocents are having their blood spilt and their lives ruined and what is your responsibility to them? Will you allow your family or your people, those most obviously of your bloodline, to be the only people you love, or will you recognise that we all bleed and need love?
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.