A bit of (non-Jewish) history can help us understand this week’s Torah portion: In the early 1500s, the Catholic church was being fundamentally challenged by movements which claimed it had monopolized religious power and used to enrich the church and its officials. The most radical of these movements were a particular sect of Anabaptists. Anabaptists believed that every man had to come to G-d independently – seemingly the opposite of this week’s commandment that “man shall not do everything they see as upright in their own eyes.” In the city of Münster, these radical Anabaptists saw their chance. Coming from across Germany, the Anabaptists joined together in a violent proto-communist revolt and established a ‘New Jerusalem’ which was soon led by the ‘prophet’ Jan Matthijs. Just as in this reading, there was a prophet who called for incompatible worship and a city that established an incompatible belief system. Traditional forces encircled the city. They even built new walls designed to stop Anabaptist emissaries from spreading their beliefs and gathering support. Then they brutally starved it out. When the final holdouts surrendered with a promise of safety, they were slaughtered. The leaders of the revolt were publically tortured and then executed. And the cages in which they were tortured still hang in the city center – as a permanent warning to all.
The parallels to this parsha are strong. In Münster, you had people who did what was right in their own eyes – led by a self-proclaimed prophet. In Münster, you had a religiously rebellious city pursuing an incompatible vision of morality. And in Münster, you saw a brutal suppression by the wider community – which justifiably feared the radical and violent reformation of society.
Near the end of Parshat Re’eh, the Torah records a very unusual formulation. It states “the Lord your G-d brought you out of Egypt at night.” And then just a few verses later, it states “you shall slaughter the Pesach offering in the afternoon, as the sun sets, at the appointed time you went out of Egypt.”
The two times disagree. In fact, the Jewish people were physically brought out of Egypt at night (or in the early morning). But they brought themselves out of Egypt when they put the blood on the doorposts. This blood separated them from the Egyptian people. The Torah explicitly refers to blood as the animating soul of flesh. We know blood connects the many cells of the body. It animates them, giving them potential. When the Jewish people put the blood on the doorposts, they created a new body with new potential. Each home was a cell, connected by the blood which Hashem had commanded.
Blood plays a major and repeated role in this week’s parsha. We can lay claim to an animal’s flesh (its physical reality) but not its Life (which is its potential). The blood of the animals belongs to the land. And if we consume the blood, things go wrong for us – as if we have internalized the animal’s potential. Blood is more than a food, it is a carrier of something more fundamental and not necessarily well understood. As a modern example, there is currently a pig epidemic in the U.S. Five percent of the pig population has died. It is suspected that the source is the feeding of slaughtered pigs’ blood to newborn piglets. While nobody understands the mechanism (at least not yet), there is an underlying message that blood carries with it more than just nutrition.
It is the connection between the cells and thus the carrier of Life.
For a society, something other than blood plays that role. We can see it in the Shema, when the blood on the doorpost is replaced by something else: words.