As we approach Pesach this year, we are facing a world we never expected to see. There is so much uncertainty, so much fear around us and it is sure to affect every aspect of our lives, including our observance of the holiday and our Seders.
While we deal with the more immediate issues around us, many of us still have Passover in the backs of our minds asking so many questions about how we can possibly be ready for the holiday, how we can celebrate without family and friends in our homes and what the holiday will feel like as we address its themes of freedom and redemption.
Clearly, our health as individuals and our concerns for our families and every other human being should come first. But, the holiday is so important in our tradition, that it can not be simply an afterthought.
Several years ago, I began to think about the issue of the 10 plagues and how we present them at our Seders. I wrote a sermon which I am sharing here. I hadn’t thought about it until a friend asked the question of how we could approach the recitation of the plagues at this year which is so different than all other years.
So, without further introduction, here is the sermon I wrote several years ago.
When the newly freed slaves crossed the Sea, they sang a song of praise to God for having annihilated the Egyptians. An aggada, a legend, states that when the angels sought to join in the song, God silenced them, chastising them with the famous words: Maaseh Yadai tovim bayam v’atem sharim tishbachot, my creations are drowing in the sea and you sing praises to me?
But, it is critical to note that God did not silence Moses and the chorus of praise coming from the people. God understood that human beings are just that and that while more might be expected of the angels, we are clearly entitled to celebrate when, in the words of the Psalms, we see the doom of our foes.
And yet, thousands of years removed from the Exodus, with thousands of years of experience behind us and with millions of hopes and dreams for a better world, we take a moment at the Seder table, when reciting the 10 plagues which caused such pain and agony among the Egyptians, young and old alike, to take a drop of wine with our finger from our full cups at the mention of each plague, diminishing the joy a full cup signifies in deference to the pain of the Egyptians. Is this just diminishing the wine in our cups or are these drops to resemble tears?
This is a critical moment in the Seder. As we sit suspended somewhere between past and future, between freedom and slavery, between reality and redemption, we have to decide how seriously we take this symbolic action, how we understand the story of the past in light of our world today, how deeply we dare to feel the pain of those who tormented us.
For as long as I can remember, the 10 plagues have been one of the parts of the Seder we use to awaken our young children’s interest in the Seder. Just imagine,” frogs here, frogs there, frogs jumping everywhere”. Just imagine, the wicked Egyptians scratching from lice and boils. Just imagine, locusts, and who of us knew what those were when we were kids, all over everything. We made up songs, made up toys and, now the ultimate, and the reality that inspired this sermon, we can now buy chocolate representations of the 10 plagues, right down to a baby cradle for the 10th and ultimate plague.
Something is terribly wrong here.
In an era in which we rightfully express horror when some choose to celebrate the murder of innocent individuals by showering the streets with candy, how dare we make light of the death of innocent children?. These plagues are not for celebrating. Remember: even if we are not angels, we strive to be as Godlike as possible and enjoying the sweetness of the death and destruction even of our legendary enemy does not find favor in God’s eyes.
So, my proposal this year for the Seder is simple. Instead of the plague bags or the chocolate plagues, God forbid, or even instead of the creative ways we all have had to make the 10 plagues part of our Seder, including my personal favorite which I now regret, finding 10 hats in my baseball cap collection whose logos can refer to each of the plagues and spreading them out on the Seder table. (Well, my kids were young and I thought it would help.) Instead of any of that, let us use the plagues as a way to commit ourselves to a better world, to a world of tikkun, of repair and an end to as much suffering as we can manage. Let us think of a path of righteousness that we can connect to each of the plagues and redeem them as we were redeemed. I offer these suggestions but use your creativity to find your own:
Dam, blood. Give a pint of blood before Pesach.. It is a great act of tzedakah.
Tzfardea, frog. Singular not plural. Say the Rabbis, one frog came up and called the others to join him. Let us, each of us, be an influence for constructive rather than destructive acts and get others to join us.
Kinim, lice. This is a tough one. But, I note that the word kinim is spelled like the word, ken, yes. Let us say “yes” when asked for help from someone rather than a knee jerk” no”.
Arov, wild animals. Let us spend a little extra time with the animals living under our roofs and show concern for endangered species throughout the world.
Dever, cattle disease. A little less meat maybe at the Seder, a little more healthful eating in the year to come.
Shchin, boils. Here’s a stretch. Seriously recognize the dangers of global warming and reduce our energy use.
Barad, hail. The Rabbis claimed that the hail stones which hit Egypt contained fire within them, nes bitoch neysthey claimed, a miracle inside a miracle. Let us treat life like the miracle it is and see to elevate the holiness of our lives through an appreciation for the world we live in.
Arbeh, locusts. Let us reach out our hands beyond our own walls and join in a community which can be a swarm of people acting for the good of all.
Hoshech, darkness. The Torah is called Or, light. Let us commit ourselves to Torah study to bring light to the darkened corners of our lives and our world.
And, finally, makat bichorot, the 10th plague, let us take steps to see that all of our children in our nation and throughout the world are cared for, protected and loved. Let no child go without health care, no child go to bed hungry, no child, anywhere be denied the opportunity to grow in health and in freedom.
Our world is full of plagues and God has no one but us to stop them. And today’s plagues are not selective. They affect all of us, no matter who we are, no matter where we live. The only way to stop them is to fight them. When the plagues are mentioned this year, even if we want to celebrate our ancient redemption, let us remember the pain they caused and the pain caused by plagues today and instead of making fun, let us make commitments to complete the job God began at the Sea.
This year, as we face this horrendous plague of the Coronavirus, let us find other parts of the Seder ritual to greet in song and a sense of freedom. Let us realize that we still live in a world of plagues, plagues which are not as selective and not necessarily a means to the redemption of any one people. This year, we are all victims.
Next year may we feel safe once again outside in the world among our brothers and sisters everywhere.