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.