“And you shall take a bundle of hyssops and dip it in the blood in the basin,
and you shall touch it to the lintel and the two door posts,
and you shall not go out, no man from the entrance
of his home that night, until the morning.” – Shemos 12:22
After months of witnessing Hashem’s mastery over nature, the Jewish people were commanded to commit the ultimate affront to the Mitzrim: to take their very god, tie it to the bedpost, and prepare it to be slaughtered on the 14th of Nissan. They were then to take the blood of the korban and smear it on their doorposts as a sign to protect them. Additionally, they were told that since all first-born Mitzrim were to be killed, no Jew should leave his house that night.
Rashi explains that even though blood on the doorpost was a sign that that house belonged to a Jew, if a Jew were to walk in the street, he would be in danger. “Once permission is given to the destroyer to destroy, he doesn’t distinguish between innocent and guilty.”
It seems Rashi is saying that had a Jew remained in his house that evening, he would not have been killed, and had he left his house, he might have died – not because he was guilty of any sin, not because he deserved to die, but because once the destroyer is given permission to kill, anyone in his path is in danger.
This is difficult to understand. If someone is innocent, how is it possible he would die? The basis of our entire belief system is that there is no power in this world other than Hashem. We accept that all decisions are directly guided and carried out by Him alone. So how is it possible that someone undeserving of death would have been killed anyway, just for going outside that evening? Where is the justice?
Immutable Laws of Nature
The answer to this question is based on the way Chazal understand the system of Creation. Hashem formed this world with definite and distinct laws: heat tends to rise, gases tend to expand, heavy objects tend to fall. These laws are the bedrock foundation for all of physicality. Just as Hashem created laws for the physical world, so too He created laws for the spiritual world. These are specific and exact, and carry throughout Creation.
Before Hashem created the world, He thought (if it could be) to create it with the middas hadin – strict justice. However, the world couldn’t exist if it operated according to this system, so He created the world using the middas harachamim – the system of mercy. The operating principle then became compassion. The way actions were weighed and people were judged was now with a different scale and measuring rod. But since Hashem acts with complete honesty, justice cannot be ignored. It is mitigated and guided by kindness, but it still demands its due.
The Mesillas Yesharim explains that pure middas hadin would demand instant punishment for a sin. After all, in this world you are a creation, a visitor in the King’s land, created by and supported by Him. The King gave you laws for your good, and if you have the audacity to violate the express command of the King, even a slight transgression should be immediately punishable by death. The middah of mercy allows for a different way of judging an act: a sinner is given time to repent, the punishment isn’t as severe, and there is a system of teshuvah – of somehow undoing the sin itself.