Killing The Gods
Americans hear about cows walking through the streets of India and laugh out loud. “Worshipped as gods? That’s ridiculous,” we westerners chuckle to ourselves. But the truth is that history lends a heftier hand to the traditions giving bovines the right of way. For thousands of years, human cultures have deified animals and inanimate objects. And for thousands of years, human beings have been dead wrong.
Of course worshipping cows or rocks is ridiculous. The human being, a creature of infinite potential, is degraded by subjugation to anything less than the infinite itself. As Jews, we understand that the infinite created us lovingly and purposefully, and that this love and intelligent purpose infuses every cell of our bodies and every moment of our lives. We know that this infinite intelligence and love is fully expressed in a Torah that we are privileged to spend our lives striving to actualize. We also happen to be aware that the infinite has a name.
Of course, Torah-observant Jews never actually say that name. The word we use to refer to the infinite is “Hashem”, a Hebrew word which literally translates to “the name”. This is because we don’t want to begin to feel so familiar that we forget Who we’re talking about – the infinite is never in our back pocket.
There is Judaism in a nutshell for you. And perhaps no moment in history was more “Jewish” than the moment that we were redeemed from Egypt.
Not Our Story
The Jews did not leave Egypt in order to waltz into Israel and start ordering everybody around. Hollywood loves the little-guy-strikes-it-big narrative, rags to riches. Those may be terrific stories, but they are not our story. Sure, we were a small and degraded slave nation. Sure, we left the ancient world’s greatest megalopolis in shambles after a round total of ten unthinkably devastating supernatural disasters. Most people translate them as plagues, but call them whatever you want. The Egyptians called them trouble.
Sure, we walked into the Sinai desert a new people, strode through a sea that split, moseyed on up to Mount Sinai and received the universe’s single greatest trump card in history. All that may be true, but that wasn’t why we left.
The reason we left was probably displayed most dramatically on the 14th of Nissan, 1312 BCE. It began like this:
“Speak to the entire assembly of Israel… On the tenth of this month they shall take for themselves…a lamb or kid…for the household… It shall be yours…until the fourteenth day of this month; the entire congregation of the assembly of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon. They shall take some of its blood and place it on the two doorposts and on the lintel of the houses in which they will eat it.” (Shemos/Exodus 12:1-7)
This commandment began the annual Pesach offering which continued to be brought in the mishkan (tabernacle) and later the first and second beis hamikdash (temple) until our current state of exile began about two thousand years ago.
You see, the infinite Hashem had a problem, so to speak. According to the game rules He Himself had made up about 2,448 years ago at the dawn of creation, He had backed Himself into something of a corner. Sure, He could split the sea, rain down plagues, and even free an entire slave nation from over one hundred years of blanket oppression. No problem. But, as the saying goes, you can take the Jews out of Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the Jews. For the Jews to become truly free people, our ancestors had to free their minds.
Paganism for Pleasure and Profit
Google the word “paganism” today and you’ll find 7,930,000 results in under 0.17 seconds. The Hindi have their cows and the Ku Klux Klan have their sacred chalices. Take Catholics, roughly 17% of the world’s population. Ever walk into Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem? I haven’t, but my buddy explained to me that most of the door frames are built low in order to trick visitors into bowing down before the idols in the buildings’ many rooms. Idolatry in 2011 is alive and well.
Back in the ancient middle east, though, worshipping idols wasn’t just a fun thing to do. It was air, bread, and water. It was culture, it was meaning, and most importantly, it was power. Real power. Not just imaginary or for playing pretend. Idol worship in Egypt manipulated spiritual forces the way surgery manipulates internal organs. The unseen was accessible, present, and very dangerous.
In the ancient middle east, if you wanted money, you didn’t go out and get a job. You went out and got an animal sacrifice, or even better, a human one. Rituals we look at with confusion and bemusement today raised hell back then. Torah testifies that something about the knowledge and spiritual capacities of humanity at that period in history made what we call black magic tangible and available in a way that we can’t imagine in this day and age. Serving or defaming the so-called gods carried real consequences for individuals and for nations. In Egypt at that time, one of the heaviest hitting “gods” of all was represented by the lamb.
When the Jews were commanded to slaughter a lamb, smear the blood over the lintel and doorposts of each of their homes, and flagrantly eat it before the stunned, enraged eyes of the entire Egyptian nation, it was not a symbolic act. It was not a cute little ritual with interesting psychological ramifications. It was a very serious act of rebellion.
It would have been bad enough if it was just the angry Egyptians that the Jews had to contend with. Can you imagine how the Egyptians must have felt to see their god slaughtered, smeared, and eaten? That’s a little bit worse than making a sacrifice out of the family pet, yes? All the emotional investment and a million times more terror and rage due to potential spiritual backlash. The Jews were commanded to take the most dramatic stand possible against the very same people that only a short while ago had been beating them to death and mortaring their newborn infants into buildings when bricks were missing. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was a shadow of this kind of intrepid insurgency.
But what made it even more frightening, if you can imagine that, was the fear that many Jews had of killing the sheep itself. Nissan, the month the Jews were commanded to slaughter the animal, was the month Egypt believed to be operating under the direction of the astrological sign of Capricorn. The sign was thought to begin waxing into its most powerful influence on the tenth of the month and to begin waning in influence on the twentieth. That meant that the fifteenth of the month – the evening the Jews were to enjoy a meal of roasted lamb and sleep behind doors smeared in sheeps’ blood – was Capricorn’s day of most powerful influence. It was like International Sheep God Day. Of every day on the calendar that killing a sheep might be a ba-a-a-a-a-a-ad idea (excuse the pun), this one was the worst.
Again, to us all this sounds ridiculous. Kill a sheep? Aside from PETA, what’s the big deal? But to the Jews who had spent generations enslaved in the most powerful, magical, idol-worshipping culture in existence at that time, killing a sheep on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan was genuinely terrifying. To overcome that terror and reach deep into the spiritual reservoirs of the unique relationship that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) had developed with the Almighty hundreds of years and many generations ago…? It was a challenge of the highest order. And we met it with flying colors.
Setting the Stage for “Anochi”
Slaughtering the Pesach offering for the first time that afternoon in 1312 BCE was a game changer for all coming generations. It said flat out that we don’t believe in Egypt. We don’t believe in black magic. Can you manipulate spiritual powers? Or, more applicably to our generation, can you manipulate money, people, governments, and natural resources? Sure, you can pretend to, and for a while it might even look and feel as though you are. But at the end of the day – and through the beginning and the middle, too, as it always turns out – there is only one Master of the Universe.
There is only one infinite, incorporeal source of all power and indeed all existence. That was the Hashem who took us out of Egypt. That was the Hashem who made His big début in front of some three million of our ancestors at Mount Sinai with the immortal words, “Anochi… I am Hashem, your G-d, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery” and “Lo yehiyeh… You shall not recognize the gods of others in My presence…” All three million or so heard and reported the same thing. Coincidence?
There is only one game in town and on the afternoon of the 14th of Nissan we buckled down and decided to play it. Before we ever set foot outside the physical bounds of our slavery, we had left Egypt way behind. Before we took one step towards the land of milk and honey, we learned that freedom means infinitely more than having a state. We discovered that any human being can be a free man, even as his or her hands are bound in chains. A precedent had been set for the rest of human history: no person could truly enslave us but ourselves.
As it so happened, we departed for Sinai the very next day, but before that leaving Egypt would have been meaningless. Our physical redemption could not have taken place if we hadn’t chosen spiritual redemption first. The choice is still in our hands every day. Today, what are you choosing?
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
By Braha Bender