Freedom

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?

Good Enough

Had G-d brought us out of Egypt
But not parted the Sea for us – Dayenu!
Had G-d parted the Sea for us
But not brought us through on dry land – Dayenu!
Had G-d brought us near to Mount Sinai
But not given us the Torah – Dayenu!

 Here’s a conversation starter for a dry seder:  Does anyone really believe the words to this song?

            I mean, we’ve been singing Dayenu a long time – probably since the era of the Geonim (650-1075 CE). Even families that have abridged the seder to a significant degree still consider this song essential. But consider the words as they appear on the page, and the message is less than obvious. Do we really believe that “It Would Be Good Enough for Us” (for that is the meaning of Dayenu) if G-d had redeemed us from slavery and then left us to starve in the desert? If the Sea had parted and the story ended there? If we had not been allowed to coalesce into a people, and had ultimately gone the way of the Amorites, Hittites, Canaanites, Babylonians, and others who long ago folded into history’s abyss?

            Of course it wouldn’t have been “good enough.”  Any break in any link of the chain of those miraculous events would have signified the end of the Jewish people, and there wouldn’t be anyone around to sing Dayenu to G-d. How could that possibly be “good enough”? So maybe this passage has more to it than meets the eye?

            Dayenu is placed nearly halfway through the seder, after most of the storytelling has taken place and just after the recitation of the Ten Plagues. We have already recounted the brutality of slavery. We have begun to comprehend all the many miracles – and the miracles upon miracles, according to Rabbis Yossi Ha-G’lili, Eliezer, and Akiva in the Haggadah – that have brought us here today, to this moment. Soon we’ll be feasting. But first we sing this song.

            The themes of what it means to be a slave and what it means to be free are placed before us.  And there’s a trap. We might reach this point in the seder, say to ourselves that slavery is a thing of the past, and we’re done with it. Let’s eat.

            But slavery is not a thing of the past.  Those who delude themselves into thinking they’re the most free just might find themselves in chains more restrictive than ever.  Just consider:

·      One in three Americans are chronically overworked;

·      54% of Americans have felt “overwhelmed” at work in the past month;

·      21% of overworked Americans exhibit symptoms of clinical depression.[1]

Do you see? A girl who starves herself “just to lose a few more pounds” is still enslaved. A family that feels compelled to make a Bar Mitzvah party that much bigger or more lavish because that’s the style is enslaved. A teenager who accommodates sleep deprivation just to get fifty more points on the cursed SATs is still enslaved. Uniquely, Americanly enslaved.

            What’s the way out of this trap?  Only this: the person who knows how to say Dayenu—what I have is, indeed, truly enough for me—is the person who is really free. I can stop the endless pursuit of acquiring, competing, accumulating more. In fact, I can do a better job at giving some of it away.

            Of course, there are plenty around us who are truly, desperately in need. This lesson can’t be applied outwards toward our neighbors, telling them they should be satisfied with whatever they have (as in the words of the miser in a classic Chasidic story, “If I can subsist on bread, they can surely subsist on stones!”) It only works when directed within.

            That’s why we sing Dayenu in our seder. Only the person who can look at his life and say, “What I have is truly what I need,” knows the taste of liberation; everything else is delusion.

 


[1] Overwork in America: When the Way We Work Becomes Too Much, Families and Work Institute, 2005, http://familiesandwork.org/press/overworkinamericarelease.html#overwork

"Into the Woods," Freedom, & Happily Ever After

December 30, 2014

There’s a fine, thoughtful movie about the meaning of freedom in theaters now, and it’s not “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” It’s “Into the Woods,” the new cinematic version of the Sondheim musical.

“Into the Woods” intertwines several classic fairy tales:  Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack & the Beanstalk, and Little Red Riding Hood all merge together in Act 1, along with a Baker & His Wife and a witch who manipulates the plot in order to undo a curse that was placed on her. There are vengeful giants, a big bad wolf, and two Prince Charmings who are as shallow as you always imagined they would be. All of the characters discover that fate has sent them “into the woods” – a psychosexual place of innocence-shedding (although not as sexualized as I remember the play being when I saw it on Broadway years ago).  

There is a lot going on in those dark woods. The show’s themes include: moral development, community vs. the individual, parenting, leaving home, spoiled teens, infidelity (Prince: “I was raised to be charming, not sincere!”), friendship, sacrifice, and fate.  But there are two Torah themes in the story that particularly resonate with me.

The first is the show’s wonderful two-act structure (especially poignant on stage, where there is an intermission between parts). Act 1 braids together the well-known fairy tales, and it climaxes exactly the way that every fairy tale does:  They all live happily ever after.

The beauty of “Into the Woods” is:  There’s an Act 2.

In other words, what happens after “happily ever after”? Cinderella discovers she isn’t cut out for the life of a princess. The baker discovers that the baby he yearned for isn’t so easy to care for. Several characters die before their time. In other words, there is no “happily ever after”—because there remains work to do and lives to live and there are still giants (who are threatening everyone’s survival) to slay.

“Happily ever after” is for fairy tales. Life isn’t a fairy tale—and neither is the Torah.  The entire saga of the Torah – from the expulsion from Eden, the descent to Egypt, and the sojourns in the desert – can be seen as a quest towards reaching (returning to) the Promised Land. Four and a half of its five books take place along that road. At the culmination of Deuteronomy, the Israelites stand on the edge of the Land, and Moses goes up to Mt. Nebo and surveys all of it. And in shul on Simchat Torah, we read the final words of the Torah – never again did there arise a prophet like Moses – and then… “In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.”  The cycle of reading starts over again, and we never quite get to the Promised Land. Why not?  Because there is still work to do. The best we can do is move a little closer towards that goal, and set up the next generation to be that much closer to the Promised Land of the future.

“Into the Woods” is also about freedom.  When Act 2 opens, the characters are free agents, having fulfilled their dreams and desires. Then fate intervenes. A wrathful giant wants to demolish the kingdom, the survivors have to decide: give up Jack (of beanstalk fame) or stand united. There is a temptation to offer him as a sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. There is a lot of self-doubt, the presumption being that only princes are qualified to do battle with the forces of evil.  (This recalls a great liberal falsehood: That because we’re not perfect, we’re not qualified to make moral arguments against evil.)

Jewish tradition makes a similar argument about freedom.  Pirkei Avot 6:2 quotes the Torah, The tablets were the handiwork of G-d, with G-d’s writing engraved on the tablets. Then it creatively says:  Don’t read “engraved [charut] on the tablets” but rather “freedom [chayrut] was on the tablets.” It may be counterintuitive to say that subscribing to a life of religious prescriptions and service to G-d and others is a life of freedom, but that’s precisely our tradition’s claim.

What is freedom? It doesn’t mean just doing whatever you want. That’s not freedom; that’s anarchy, irresponsibility, frivolousness. In Jewish spiritual thought, freedom means encountering your own unique destiny and seizing the responsibility that has been uniquely given to you. Not running away, but sharing the responsibility that fate and history placed before you.

The protagonists in “Into the Woods” discover that nuanced understanding of what it means to be free. They come to learn that by working together, they can halt giants in their tracks and even eke out a hopeful future—even if it’s not exactly going to be “happily ever after.”