Just before the arrival of the terrible tenth plague on Egypt, Moses relays God’s command to the people of Israel to take a bundle of hyssop, dip it in the blood of the paschal offering, and to apply the blood to the lintel and two doorposts of their homes, so that the angel of death may pass them by. It’s a mysterious command, at a dark and awesome moment in the history of our people. What does it mean? Why blood on our doorposts, and why does it keep the Destroyer at bay, passing over the homes of the Israelites?
The Talmud (Bava Kama 60a) explains that the Destroyer, the Angel of Death, does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, and so the blood was the only way for it to know not to enter the homes of the Israelites to take the firstborn. It’s a good answer, but why specifically the doorposts and lintel? Why not on the walls or the roof of each house? Something deeper, a message, is being hinted at with this particular image of blood on a doorway. The Sfat Emet, a great Hasidic commentary, points out that even though the Israelites went out from Egypt with a great victory, God wanted them to know “ki heim adayin etzel hapetach,” that they were still in the doorway hoping truly to come inside into the “King’s” inner chambers (2:49). What does this mean?
Doorways are powerful symbols. They are transitions from one realm into another. A doorway often symbolizes leaving behind what we have known and entering into something new. Doorways are all about possibility and hope, and yet they can be frightening places as well: places where everything is in flux, where we are neither here nor there. Doorways can symbolize crisis as well as change: we’re in a doorway in life when all the old ways of coping fall away, and we’re not sure how or if we can handle what’s coming. It’s no wonder that we Jews put mezuzahs on our doorways to this day with the words of the Shema, words of affirmation, tradition and comfort to accompany us as we transition from one place to another in life.
A doorway is the perfect symbol for the Israelites at that moment in the story: in the dark night as the Destroyer passes through Egypt smiting the firstborn, we are still in Egypt, but our Exodus is now a surety. We know we are about to face a whole new and unknown future with the light of dawn. Tonight, there is only death on the other side of that doorway, but with the blood on our doorposts, there is the promise that tomorrow brings life and freedom.
What’s truly amazing is that this command to put the blood on the doorways comes in the midst of a long list of preparations for the Passover festival. The narrative then continues with the description of the final plague passing through Egypt, and finally Pharaoh’s relenting to let the Israelites go. But it’s not over yet even then. Pharaoh, as we know, changes his mind and encounters the Israelites at the Red Sea. We know what happens then—the sea parts, Pharaoh’s chariots give chase, and the sea covers them and drowns the whole army. And so, is the transition, the doorway, passed through yet? No! We have the whole desert before us now! Soon we make it to Mount Sinai and God gives us the Torah. That’s pretty incredible, but is the transition over yet? No! We then have another 40 years of wandering in the desert until we make to the Land of Israel. And even then, we have all the Canaanites to fight and to conquer. Are you seeing a pattern here? At least in Egypt, we were settled. We knew who we were. But as soon as we become a people of God, there is nothing but a doorway! One doorway after another. One transition after another. One crisis after another. Year after year. Generation after generation. In fact, you can make the argument that ever since we left Egypt, those passageways, those doorways have never ceased at all. After the conquest, the judges, after the judges, the kings of Israel and the struggles, and exile, and rebuilding, and destruction, and diaspora and anti-Semitism. To be a people Redeemed from Pharaoh’s slavery, to be Jewish, to be free, is to live always passing through a doorway. It’s not easy being Jewish, is it? But then again, this is our lot in the world. Perhaps this is one way we are fated to be the Ohr LaGoyim, the Light to the Nations, teaching the world a basic Truth of life: that life itself is always about transitions, passing through doorways. We know from doorways and passages. The wisdom of our people, the wisdom of Torah, is the wisdom of doorways. This is why the ancient sages in Pirkei AVot, the Ethics of the fathers, famously taught that “Ha’Olam Hazeh domeh laprozdor bifnei ha’olam haba,” (Avot 4:21) This whole world, this whole Reality, this whole life we lead is like a Prozdor—a corridor, a passageway, a doorway—before the world to come. What they mean by this is not that all the good stuff is in heaven after you die. It’s a deeper wisdom teaching: that we must first understand that everything about our life, our world is transitional and transitory. Understand that, and that is the beginning of True Wisdom. ..
There’s a story told of Reb Shlomo, a great Rebbe who was so enlightened, he knew the answer that God had to all of his disciples’ prayers. At the end of Yom Kippur one year, Reb Shlomo walked up to one of his disciples and said to him, “You have asked God for on this day of Atonement that God give you your livelihood without travail, so that you might be able to study and pray and serve God unhindered.” “Yes! I did ask that!” said his disciple, amazed at his master’s ability to see into his soul. “I can see God’s answer to your prayer,” said Reb Shlomo. “What does God say?” asked the disciple. “What God really wants of you,” answered Reb Shlomo, “is not study or prayer, but the sighs of your heart, which is breaking because the travail of gaining a livelihood hinders you in the service of God.”[i]
It’s a powerful story about longing, about the irony of longing itself. In many ways, this story is one about doorways. That disciple longs for only one thing: to be through the doorway, to be inside the Palace of the proverbial King, to be able to be free to study and pray and serve. But his master tells him something surprising: you’re not through the doorway yet. In fact, God doesn’t want you to be in the Palace of the king yet. Your place is not there yet, but here, in the doorway, in this world of effort and transitions, where things are in flux and falling apart, where things require our struggle and travail. What is precious to God from you in this moment is not your study or perfect prayer, but your imperfect striving to get to the other side of that doorway. What God requires of you in this world is your longing itself!...
Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye has a wonderful teaching about the second line that we know from the Ashrei prayer, “Ashrei Ha’Am Shekacha lo,” (Psalm 144:15) which literally means: “Happy is the people for whom it is so.” According to legend, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef learned from none other than Elijah himself the deepest meaning of this line: that we are to be the people who can look at this world and say “kacha lo,” “So it is.” “So be it.” This is a world where everything changes. Nothing stays stagnant. It’s always in flux. Things fall apart. “Kacha lo,” “So be it.”[ii] And notice that our saying, “So be it,” is not a bitter statement of resignation. The line is “Ashrei Ha’Am shekacha lo,” “Happy is the people who can say ‘so be it!’”
And herein is the deepest insight of that command of God to take the hyssop, dip it in blood, and to put that blood on the doorpost and lintels. The Kozmirer Rebbe explains it beautifully. When you are as lowly and humble as the hyssop plant (which grows low to the ground), when you are humble enough to say’ kacha lo,’ ‘so be it,’ only then can you ‘dip the hyssop in the blood,’ which, explains the Kozmirer, is a metaphor for giving your whole being—all your blood-- over to Life, to Reality, to God’s beautiful, amazing, and imperfect, always changing world. When you dip into that blood, when you accept this transitory life with your whole soul, that’s when you can ‘touch the lintel,’[iii] touch the highest place your soul can reach in this life of transition, this passageway we call Reality. And then look what happens: the Destroyer passes you by! You get to live! You get to be free!
Life can be so hard and challenging for each and every one of us. We live in a world of such uncertainty. We reach a place of feeling grounded and safe and secure, and suddenly the ground disappears from beneath our feet. The economy crashes. War looms. Illness strikes. A loved one passes away. Just when we think we’re on top of life’s challenges, we’re in the middle of a crisis, a transition, a doorway again. The insight of our sages, the wisdom of the Jewish people, of Torah itself is not to struggle and fight against Life when everything falls apart and changes. Kacha lo—such is the way of life, of the world. The path of wisdom is to remember Yitziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, when all these transitions began: embrace the change, the unknown, and be the doorway! When we learn to move with the change, as the change, when we give our very lifeblood, our fullest heart and soul to life even as it all changes around us, then even the Angel of Death passes us by, we are free. Of course, I don’t mean that we literally won’t die. I mean that our experience of change, of things falling apart, of eras ending, won’t be felt as unending anguish. When we cease to resist inevitable change and rather move as the change, then we can experience transition not as suffering and death, but as the very Hand of God moving us through the doorway of Reality itself. Instead of suffering, this doorway we call life becomes an achingly beautiful unfolding miracle, day by day, moment by moment.
May we indeed come into this deepest knowledge that our life is a doorway. We are the doorway. We are the transition. May we embrace the transience of life, and celebrate this ever-changing miracle of our existence, without clinging, without resistance to what cannot be changed. May this insight bring us bring us wisdom and peace, and through this insight, may we bring Redemption to the world. Amen.