Parashas HaChodesh

This Shabbos, for the maftir aliyah, we read the special portion known as parashas HaChodesh, which designates Nisan as the first month of the Jewish year and presents some laws concerning Pesach: the Pesach offering, refraining from chametz, eating matzah, and observing the first and last days as Yomim Tovim. In this portion, we read about how Hashem commanded the Jews of the Exodus generation to smear the blood of the Pesach offering on the doorposts and lintels of their houses. Hashem declares (Shemos 12:12-13):
I shall traverse the land of Egypt, and I shall smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast …. And the blood shall be a sign for you upon the houses where you are. I shall see the blood and pass over you, and there shall not be an onslaught to wreak destruction against you when I strike within the land of Egypt.
The Maggid notes several difficulties with this statement. In two separate places, Hashem uses what seems to be extra language. First, He says “a sign for you” where seemingly it would be enough to say simply “a sign.” Second, He says “an onslaught to wreak destruction” where seemingly it would be enough to say simply “an onslaught.” Beyond these points of language, the import of the sign of blood, in itself, needs explanation. Usually a sign of blood marks a person for death. Thus, in connection with Yechezkel 9:4, the Gemara in Shabbos 56a relates that Hashem told the archangel Gavriel to mark the foreheads of the wicked with blood and those of the righteous with ink, so the destroying angels would have dominion over the wicked but not over the righteous. But, for the Jews in Egypt, it appears that the sign of blood was meant for protection, contrary to its usual function.
The Maggid explains the above difficulties as follows. Hashem, on occasion, announces an adverse decree in order to spur the Jewish People (or an individual Jew) to prayer or repentance. If the Jews respond appropriately, the adverse decree is transformed. Not only does it not lead to an adverse result, it actually leads to a positive result – through their response, the Jews come closer to Hashem and generate merit for themselves. For example, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:12, cf. Shabbos 156a–b) describes how Avraham saw an astrological sign indicating that he would not father children, and the Maggid explains that Hashem’s intent in showing him this sign was to spur him to pray that the adverse decree be cancelled, so that ultimately he would actually have a child.
Now, when Hashem declared that He was going to smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, the implication was that the Jewish firstborn were also subject to the decree. The sign of blood, on the surface, was an indication the Jewish firstborn were under threat. But the sign of blood did not mean exactly what it usually does. It was not a signal for the destroyer to carry out an actual attack against the Jews, far be it. Rather, the blood on the door frame was designed simply to make the Jews inside see that the specter of judgment was looming over them – so they would be struck with fright and repent sincerely. This is why Hashem described the sign of blood as “a sign for you” – the blood was meant as a sign for the Jews, not for the destroyer. And thus Hashem declared: “I shall see the blood and pass over you, and there shall not be an onslaught to wreak destruction against you.” There would be an onslaught, but not one that would wreak actual destruction. Rather, the onslaught would be simply one of fear, to lead the Jews to repent and thereby merit salvation.
In connection with the Pesach offering, the Midrash expounds as follows (Shemos Rabbah 15:12):
It is like a king who said to his sons: “Be advised that I am judging capital cases and will be handing down convictions. Bring me a gift, so that if you come before me on the [defendant’s] platform, I will transfer your record to someone else.” Thus said the Holy One Blessed Be He to Yisrael: “Be advised that I am dealing with capital cases. I now inform you of the means whereby I will mercifully show you pity: the blood of the Pesach offering and the blood of circumcision. And I will grant atonement for your souls. For the traversal I will be making is a harsh one.” As it is written (Shemos 12:12): “And I shall traverse the land of Egypt, [and I shall smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man to beast].” And, similarly, Yisrael declared (Tehillim 9:10): “And Hashem will be a fortress for the crushed, a fortress through times of trouble.”  
The Maggid interprets this Midrash using the idea brought out above. Hashem tells the Jews that the traversal He will be making through Egypt will be a harsh one, meaning that it will threaten everyone dwelling there. The Midrash advances a proof of this from Shemos 12:12, which, as noted above, indicates that the decree of death to the firstborn was a general one. In response, the Jews declare: “Hashem will be a fortress for the crushed, a fortress through times of trouble.” As a result of the fear that wells up within us through the threat of calamity, Hashem will act as a fortress for us and protect us from the calamity.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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