“And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” — Exodus 12:13
Why does God need the Israelites to mark the doorposts of their houses with blood? Being omniscient, wouldn’t God automatically know the difference between an Israelite and an Egyptian house? Rashi famously answers this question by pointing to the words “a sign for you.” According to this interpretation, the blood on the doorpost is less a sign for God than it is for the Israelites – presumably as a reminder of God’s redemptive power.
Taking Rashi one step further, we might regard the blood on the doorpost not only as an internal sign for the Israelites, but as an external sign for the Egyptians as well. After all, by marking their doorposts in the way, the Israelites were publicly identifying themselves and their households throughout Egypt. Marking their homes with blood was thus be an act of proud defiance – the Israelites were, in a sense “wearing their oppression” openly to the outside world.
Ironically, however, blood is not only symbolic of oppression and death, but of life force. Indeed, according to the Ancient Israelite world view, sacrificial blood was regarded as having saving power. By marking their homes with their pain, the Israelites were also saving themselves – initiating a process that would lead to their eventual redemption.
Post Script: The notion of publicly “wearing one’s pain” was recently explored in a powerful way by one contemporary artist. In 1996, a Jewish museum in Berkeley, CA displayed a mezuzah filled with artist Albert Winn’s HIV-infected blood on a temporary doorpost. Winn commented that displaying his blood was his personal way of “making sense” of his illness while raising awareness about HIV/AIDS on World AIDS Day.
Post-Post Script: The CBS News reported last summer on a fascinating phenomenon occurring in the Gulf Coast region: the dramatic increase in tattoos bearing storm-related images. According to the report, many Katrina survivors are having images of “hurricane swirls, crumbling buildings, names of the dead or broken hearts gushing floodwater” displayed permanently on their bodies. One tattoo parlor owner suggested that these new tattoos were a kind of therapy for the wearers:
“A big part of their lives has been lopped off,” he said. “This is a way to reclaim that and say, ‘I’m proud of who I am, where I’m from, that I’m here.”‘
Andrea Garland and her husband, Jeffrey Holmes, say their matching “RIP Lower 9” tattoos are tributes to the Lower Ninth Ward residents who lost their lives and homes when the city’s levee system failed, inundating the neighborhood with floodwater…
“This is an event that’s never going to leave us,” she said. “It’s something that’s dramatically affected and changed our lives forever.”
For Jeffries’ friend Tim Lawrence, placement of his storm symbol tattoo was just as important as the image itself. The 31-year-old, an assistant manager at a French Quarter hotel, got his on the back of his neck — his way of putting the storm behind him.
“I’ll always have a hurricane at my back,” he said. “I never want to have one in front of me again.”