Midrash

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.  



Why Teshuvah Preceded the Creation of the World

A brief thought about Teshuvah before the final Shabbat of 5778.

A medieval midrash teaches that there were a variety of things that were created even before the creation of the world, and among them: Teshuvah [turning-to-God-in-repentance]. (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 3)

It seems anomalous; after all, I might have thought that it was a person’s responsibility to turn or not to turn. Free will and all that. What in heaven does it mean to say that “Teshuvah” was created before the beginning of the world?

I suspect that the answer lies in relationships, and that’s the reason I always share this particular midrash with couples who are getting married. To say that “Teshuvah” is a preexisting condition means that forgiveness is built-in to the fabric of a relationship.

It means: before you even hurt me, I’m already prepared to forgive you. For any relationship to stand the test of time, there are some prerequisites: We know that I’m going to hurt you with occasional careless words; periodic absorption in my own problems when you need my attention; a subconsciously derived aggression or inappropriate silence when a word is needed. These things will happen, and you’re going to do the same to me. Hopefully not often; hopefully our relationship will always grow and deepen.

And to say that Teshuvah preexists our relationship means that because we love each other, forgiveness and wanting to repair damages even before they happen are built-in to the relationship.

This is the nature of a loving partnership. This is what it means to be a real friend, a lover, a parent, a brother or sister, or a son or daughter: I already forgive you.

The midrash goes a giant step further. At this season, it is as if God says these things to each of us, too: I know you're not perfect; the potential to repair and forgive is part of the fabric of our relationship.

Of course, in an era of scandalous abuses and #MeToo, we have to qualify: we’re not talking about abuse or exploitation or vicious lies here; the Teshuvah called for in those situations is much more complicated. But this is about the petty slights and daily slips that cause hurt to the most important people in our lives, the mistakes that each of us makes because we are human and thus, by definition, imperfect.

Every relationship is an interaction between two different worlds (as we learn from Sanhedrin 4:5). But even before each world was created, Teshuvah was there. Otherwise, real relationship would be impossible, and each of us would be an isolated vessel, utterly alone to navigate the void. Teshuvah makes us human.

...an entire world...

Great visual midrash from @thelucidreams:

Lucid Dreams - Sanhedrin.jpg

On Sanhedrin 4:5:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא

...to teach you that whoever destroys a single life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered by the Torah to have saved an entire world...