10 Plagues

We're Doing the 10 Plagues All Wrong—Part Two

The Maggid section of the Haggadah—the lengthiest part of the seder, the section which retells the story of the Exodus—culminates with the description of the so-called “Ten Plagues.” As I wrote earlier, the idea of the “plagues” is misunderstood, and that has led to a lot of misguided creativity around this part of the seder.

None of that is to say that there aren’t powerful and important lessons regarding the ritual here. In some ways, this is one of the most provocative sections of the entire seder.

When we reach this passage, every community that I’ve encountered has a similar sort of ritual. Upon reciting the name of each  “plague,” a drop of wine is removed from each of our cups. (Many also remove drops of wine before the 10 Plagues: 3 drops at the verse from Joel 3:3  “...Blood [דָם] and fire [אֵשׁ] and pillars of smoke [וְתִימֲרוֹת עָשַׁן]”; and 3 times at the acronym for the Plagues [דצ"ך עד"ש באח"ב], for a total of 16 drops.)

There are variations about how this removal takes place. Many people use their fingers, taking out wine from their glass drop by drop. Perhaps this custom alludes to the יד חזקה / yad chazakah / the “mighty hand” with which G-d redeemed the Israelites (see Exodus 6:1, 13:9; and especially Deuteronomy 26:8, which the Haggadah is citing, as well as Deut. 34:12, the last verse of the Torah).  Other people tip their glasses, spilling drops one at a time. Some use a utensil to remove the drops.

But the most important thing is to be clear about what this ritual means.

A kiddush cup full of wine is a symbol of joy and celebration. To reduce the wine in our glass symbolizes reducing our joy.

Why do we do this? The 15th Century commentator Don Yitzhak Abarbanel said that our joy is not complete as we recall the suffering of the Egyptians as we made our way to freedom. He quotes Proverbs 24:17:  “When your enemy falls, do not rejoice...”

That is a breathtaking statement.  Recall that when we read “Egyptians” in the text, what we’re saying is:  Nazis. Inquisitors. Hamas. Baby-killers, as the midrash makes clear. The most bloodthirsty oppressors that have slimed their way onto the stage of human history. 

And yet, when we consider the victories that gave us our freedom, we recognize that our enemies suffered, too.

It recalls as astounding passage from the Talmud that tells how the angels wished to rejoice at the moment of the Splitting of the Sea, but G-d silenced them:

שאין הקדוש ברוך הוא שמח במפלתן של רשעים. דאמר ר' שמואל בר נחמן אמר ר' יונתן... באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לומר שירה לפני הקב"ה אמר להן הקב"ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני.

The Holy and Blessed One does not rejoice at the fall of the wicked.
Thus Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan:... At that  moment [when the Egyptians were drowning in the Sea,] the ministering angels intended to sing before the Holy and Blessed One.
The Holy One said, “The work of My hands is drowning in the sea, and you would sing before me?!”

This is an astonishing idea. Our tradition is demanding that, at the moment of deliverance from suffering, we set aside any sort of triumphalism. Instead, we are called upon to recognize the very human-ness of our enemy.

To be sure, these passages do not apologize for our victory. We don’t regret that we were brought out of Egypt, just as we don’t regret the integrity and passion and ferociousness with which we’ve fought any just war in history. Evil must be vanquished, sometimes only through greater force.  

What the tradition does assert is that we can’t allow ourselves to dehumanize our enemies. They, too, are fathers and mothers, sons and daughters. They suffered when their water turned to blood, their fields were devoured by locusts, and their firstborn lay dead in their beds. They suffered when we fought back in the ghettos and the trenches, and when they and their children died on the battlefields. 

Enemies are real, but perhaps recognizing each other’s inherent humanity is a cautious step towards a world with... well, a bit fewer enemies. 

Can we live up to this standard that our tradition sets? I’m not saying I can, not yet. The desire for justice... which sometimes is indistinguishable from the desire for vengeance against those who have hurt us... is just too strong. But that’s what makes this spiritual challenge so compelling—our highest values are what we should reach for, not what we already comfortably accept.  

This is the ritual of the drops at the Ten Plagues.  It’s radical and challenging, and it deserves a moment of meditation and reflection before we tip our cups.  



We're Doing the Ten Plagues All Wrong—Part One

I collect Haggadahs. I love them; I think the Haggadah is the quintessential Jewish religious text. Not only because it tells the story of how we became a people, but also because there are Haggadot customized for every Jewish family and community. That’s why there are so many hundreds of them out there.

Pride of place in my Haggadah collection goes not to rare volumes or collector’s editions. Instead, I prefer photocopied and homemade texts that families have shared with me over the years, taking the traditional order, texts, and rituals and making the story their own. After all, personalizing the story is the key injunction of this festival: “In every generation, we must view ourselves as if we, personally, came out of Egypt” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5). We write ourselves into the continually unfolding story, respectfully inscribing the latest chapter that builds on what came before.

At the culmination of the Maggid section of the Haggadah—the part that tells the story of the Exodus—is a description of the עשר מכות/Esser Makkot, known colloquially as the Ten Plagues. And judging by the Haggadot in my collection, as well as all the creative seder material that fills my inbox at this time of the year, we’ve been doing it all wrong.

Racism. Climate change. Islamophobia… Countless Haggadot and seder-leaders over the years have invited guests to list “10 modern plagues” that afflict our world.

Homophobia. Rape culture. Surging antisemitism… there is no shortage of plagues in our world, and we’re often called by well-meaning people today to elaborate on them at the seder.

Family-separation policies for immigrants. The ubiquity of screens. Allowing rich people to set our communal agenda. Suburban complacency… I can do it, too. I’m sure you have your own list.

But if we think about it, these lists really don’t work at this part of the seder. It’s not that these things aren’t important—they are, and each contributes to a form of “enslavement” that we all yearn to be free from.

The problem is, that’s not what the מכות עשר / Esser Makkot / “Ten Plagues” are all about. 

Makkot are not “plagues.” They are “strikes”, as in military strikes against an aggressive enemy. That is precisely the image that the Torah presents in the Exodus story: G-d is waging a battle against Pharaoh in order to achieve the liberation of the Israelite slaves. At the burning bush, G-d tells Moses:

וְשָׁלַחְתִּ֤י אֶת־יָדִי֙ וְהִכֵּיתִ֣י אֶת־מִצְרַ֔יִם בְּכֹל֙ נִפְלְאֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה בְּקִרְבּ֑וֹ
וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֖ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶֽם׃
I will stretch out My hand and strike [v’hikeiti – the same root as makkot]  Egypt with
various wonders which I will work upon them; after that he shall let you go.
(Exodus 3:20)

This process unfolds over a series of 10 strikes against Egypt, each one a tool towards bringing about freedom: blood, frogs, lice, etc…

When the Torah recalls the Exodus, it refers to these events as “signs” and “wonders”. In Deuteronomy 34:11, they are called אותות (“signs”) and מופתים (“portents”); these words are used again in Psalms 78 and 105. They are divinely attributed miracles that directly brought about the release of the people from bondage.

The “Ten Plagues” are the tools of liberation. They are not lingering calamities from which the world suffers, like racism, environmental cataclysm, or ignorance. They are not called “plagues.”

The Torah has words for “plague”: נגע / nega’ and מגפה / magefah. Nega’ usually appears in the context of leprosy, the scale-disease that was a particularly horrible trauma in the Bible. (Later, a whole tractate of the Mishna on this theme would be called Nega’im.) Magefah is used usually in the context of massive deaths after the Israelites sin as a community (see, for example, Numbers 14:7, 25:8-9, 26:1; and 1 Samuel 4:17). But neither term, nega’ nor magefah, conjures up God’s battle with Pharaoh.

There is one exception (because there’s always an exception). In Exodus 11:1, just prior to the מכת הבכורות / the strike against the first-born of Egypt, G-d tells Moses:

…ע֣וֹד נֶ֤גַע אֶחָד֙ אָבִ֤יא עַל־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְעַל־מִצְרַ֔יִם…
“I will bring but one more plague [nega’] upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt…” 

Here is the one appearance of the word “plague” in the entire saga. Why does this word appear here, and only here?

Perhaps that Tenth Strike is different. After all, scholars have pointed out that the Esser Makkot occurred in three triads; there is a literary symmetry in the clusters of three, and the Tenth stands outside of the pattern. Perhaps the severity of the 10th Strike is so intense that even G-d realizes that this is the “nuclear option.” Maybe it’s simply the exception that proves the rule, since nowhere else in biblical or rabbinical literature these events are called “plagues.”

So it’s just a little too lazy to score political points by asking, “What are 10 modern plagues…?” We have more than our share of them, it is true. But there is a cognitive dissonance in linking the today’s blights with wondrous moments in the past that directly led to our freedom.

The seder saga inspires other, more appropriate and difficult questions: What “miraculous” things have contributed to our freedom – individually, as a family, and as a people? What wondrous events in our past directly made it possible for us to be here today? And how do we appropriately express our wonder, awe, and gratitude?