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Alumni With Blossom and Blood: Painting Our Path to Liberation

By Rabbi Adina Allen ‘14
Rabbi Adina Allen

Pesach (Exodus 12:21-12:51)

וּלְקַחְתֶּם אֲגֻדַּת אֵזוֹב וּטְבַלְתֶּם בַּדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסַּף וְהִגַּעְתֶּם אֶל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף וְאֶל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת מִן הַדָּם אֲשֶׁר בַּסָּף וְאַתֶּם לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח בֵּיתוֹ עַד בֹּקֶר

You shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply it to the lintel and the two side-posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the entrance of their house until the morning (Exodus 12:22).

On the eve of Exodus we prepared ourselves by painting. Turning to the materials we had in abundance all around us, we wasted nothing of what we had. We harvested hyssop growing scraggly out of the arid soil, poking its way through the cracks in the walls. Familiar to us for cleansing, clearing, healing, now bundled together as a brush for painting our protection. Blood of our Passover sacrifice in the basin beside us, the life force energy of the animal we offered up to God preserved as paint. Dipping the purple cones of flowers into the basin, we reached high and crouched down low to apply the deep red color to every surface of our threshold. The last glimmers of sunlight had long since faded into the deep black and indigo sky stretching out above us (Exodus 12:6). Under the cover of night, against the gleam of the stars, we painted our passageways and then closed ourselves inside until it was time to emerge, come morning.

Can you remember what it smelled like? Every household harvesting hyssop, the aromatic oils seeping into our skin, the bold, earthy smell wafting through the nighttime air. Can you remember what it looked like? Everyone’s hands sticky as we stepped back to behold each door frame radiant, transformed with tender bits of petal and leaf mixed into an elixir with the blood. Can you remember what it felt like? Heart thumping like a drum beat growing stronger and stronger, rooted in God, feeling the pulse of the earth coming up through our feet.

On the eve of Exodus as we prepared to leave behind all that had befallen us in Egypt and make our way out into the vast expanse, do you remember the way a galaxy of possibility opened inside of you? That night, even before sea-split and shoreline-song, before the fresh hope of liberation, even then the vastness of the wilderness waited to embrace us on the other side. Harvesting, bundling, dipping, dripping, collaborating with creation, we painted our prayers for safe passage. Etching our protection onto the entrance of our homes we prepared to go forth from that particular narrow place for the final time.

For some the sight of blood might be perceived as a sign of death, the remnant of a life extinguished. Yet, across the center and down both sides of our door frames in this blood we saw the image of the legs and lower torso of one who’s giving birth. “The blood on the entrances of the homes of the Israelites should form the equivalent of the Hebrew letter chet… a symbol of chayyim, life” writes Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah in his 13th century Torah commentary Chizkuni (Exodus 12:7). For hundreds of years our life energy was taken from us, used to fuel a system of domination and control. Our liberation, tradition teaches, is a result of the righteous women of that generation — midwives, daughters, sisters, mothers, healers who, even when everything around us felt like death, cradled, rescued, caught, birthed, nursed, and sang us back to life. It is because of them that on that night, despite the depths of terror, in anticipation of liberation, with blood and with bloom we painted our way towards our collective rebirth.

Moses told us that this blood on our door frames was to be for us a sign so that the angel of death would pass over us (Exodus 12:13). Rashi helps us understand that this painting was, in fact, not for the angel, but for us (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 12:13:1), a sign so that the inclination to take death as a way out would pass us by. The blood was a signal — to ourselves and to each other — that we were committed to the unraveling and renewal that is the process of transformation. Each time we touched our brush to blood, to door frame was an act of painting ourselves back into our own story, of calling forth the fruition of our liberation.

This ritual of painted passageways comes in the Torah at the end of the section detailing the most important instructions for how to observe Passover, including when in the Hebrew month Nisan our festival should occur and the command to eat only unleavened bread. At the end of this set of verses, God commands us “u’sh’martem et ha davar hazeh ad olam” – you are to observe in this way forever (Exodus 12:24). Somehow the date of Passover and the practice of eating only matzah has remained but this sensual, spiritual rite of harvesting, dipping, and painting our prayers for protection has been omitted from our practice. We have held onto matzah which represents the time, sustenance and safety that we lacked and the extremity of what we endured. Yet little in our seder remains to remind us of the vitality, robustness and fecundity that this holiday has the potential to restore.

Today, the Temple no longer stands and the Passover offering is no longer made. We do not have a basin of sacred blood, and hyssop may not grow in the soil where we now stretch down our roots. Yet this primary piece of the Passover story remains, offering us a true picture of what liberation is and how it comes about: through connection to the natural world, connection to the body, and creativity as the vital life force. May we embrace these raw and tender truths and may they lead us to a future revitalized, reanimated, renewed.

Rabbi Adina Allen, cofounder and creative director of Jewish Studio Project (JSP), is a spiritual leader, artist, writer, and educator whose work is dedicated to helping people reclaim their creativity as a powerful tool for spiritual connection and social transformation. A recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s 2018 Pomegranate Prize, Adina has pioneered a methodology for integrating Jewish learning, spiritual reflection, and creative expression that she has brought to thousands of Jewish educators, clergy, professionals, and lay leaders across the country. Adina was ordained by Hebrew College in 2014 where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow.

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