In our Torah portion this week we read of the Exodus from Egypt. The night before the Exodus, while the Egyptians were suffering from the final plague, Slaying of the Firstborn, the Israelites were sitting down for the first Passover Seder. They had been instructed to take a branch of hyssop, dip it in blood from their paschal lambs, and paint their door frames with the blood. This was to be a protective sign so that the Angel of Death would pass over the Israelite homes when going around Egypt killing the firstborns.
While the verses are not quite explicit about this detail, most of the Talmudic sages held that the blood was placed on the inner portion of the door frame, not the outer portion (Mekhilta, Shemot 12:7). The blood was visible to those inside the house, not to those passing by on the street. While the incorporeal Angel of Death presumably was able to see through walls in the same way that it could pass through walls to find its victims, the symbolism of placing the sign inside rather than outside is rather clear. The angel didn’t actually need the blood to know who was an Israelite and who wasn’t; it received its kill list from God anyway. The sign was more for the benefit of the Israelites themselves, to give them confidence and courage.
Though blood on the doorposts was a mitzvah to be observed only once in history, the message here applies to most of our Jewish observance. We perform rituals as if we are doing them for God’s benefit, but the truth is that we benefit from them ourselves much more than God does. Our rituals help us go through our lives appreciating all the blessings we are fortunate to have, being properly mindful of everything we do and everyone we encounter, not living merely for pleasure and not thinking only of ourselves. We do believe that our living a Jewish life has a positive effect on the whole world, but the main beneficiary of living this life is us ourselves.