Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Tenth Drop

There are ten plagues read on Passover, foisted upon the Egyptian people as Moses asks Pharaoh to "let my people go." The plagues run a gamut of nasty things, from turning the Nile River to blood, to locusts, to boils. The tenth and final plague is the slaying of the Egyptian first born. When Jews recite the ten plagues, they spill a drop of wine for each one, to symbolize their loss of joy in response to the suffering of others.

Though nominally beneath Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah (the day of atonement and Jewish new year, respectively) in terms of religious significance, Passover in a very real sense represents the climax of the Jewish biblical narrative, both telling of our enslavement in Egypt and our redemption by God. This narrative of oppression and freedom is perhaps the crucial influence on Jewish social and political thought, and occupies a central place in the religion. It is nearly impossible to conceptualize a Jewish "world" without the Passover story.

Yet, this year, I almost decided I could not celebrate it.

In the modern era, the Passover story has been supplemented by the Holocaust as the crucial experience in the Jewish narrative. Twelve million people, six million Jews including 1.5 million children, were obliterated by the Nazi death machine, totaling a quarter of the world's Jewish population. A massive portion of contemporary Jewish theology has focused on the Shoah and its aftermath, and what it means to be Jewish after Auschwitz. Rabbi Irving Greenberg articulated one of the more potent formulations of a post-Holocaust Jewish theology, arguing that, for the modern Jew, "no statement, theological or otherwise, can be made that would not be credible in the face of burning children."

Passover and the Holocaust exist in tension with each other, not the least because the former emphasizes divine redemption, while the latter feels more of divine abandonment. Nearly every Haggadah explores the obvious connections between Passover and the Holocaust. Generally, the camps are analogized to enslavement, and the establishment of Israel takes on the role of redemption. This narrative holds true as far as it goes. But the conflict is deeper than that.

The plagues God sends upon the Egyptians, specifically, the tenth plague, is very difficult to reconcile with post-Holocaust moral commitments. For one, it was overbroad. Those that it punished were not guilty. The slaughter is complete and indiscriminate, "from the first-born of Pharaoh that sitteth upon his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill" (Ex 11:5). The two year old Egyptian child is in no way responsible for the political actions of a hereditary dictatorship. I know of no set of circumstances for which I could affirm that this four-year old toddler and that seven-month infant deserve to die, but this certainly was not it. Earlier in Exodus we are told of Pharaoh's order to kill every Jewish baby boy. This is appalling, but when the subject is infanticide, turnabout is not fair play. What psychological contortions must we undergo to so quickly forget our horror at the order to kill children?

Second, the killings were completely unnecessary. While the popular narrative is that the plagues are in response to Pharaoh's persistent refusal to free the Jews, the actual text reveals a more complex story. From the sixth plague on, it is not Pharaoh who hardens his heart, but God. "And the LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh" (Ex 9:12). So it is that God is in fact responsible for the continued enslavement of the Jews, justifying another round of brutality, eventually culminating in genocidal violence.

When the subject is mass murder, I will not "plead God's cause" (Job 13:7-10). If there is one place where the standard apologetics and defenses for Biblical injustice simply cannot be allowed to carry, this is it. An honest reading of the text forces us to read the tenth plague as nothing short than the gratuitous slaughter of innocent children. Juxtaposed next to the Holocaust, this has horrifying implications. On the one hand, modern Jewish theology is centered around what response (if any) can be given to our dead children. On the other hand, we celebrate a holiday which climaxes through the murder of other innocent children. So long as that basic truth is suppressed, Passover will continue to be, in a very important way, a ritualistic reenactment of the Holocaust--and the songs we sing are praises to the SS. Horrifying as this thought is, there is no way to avoid it. Every year, in order to contort our theology so as to fit within comfortable frames, we force ourselves to forget the Holocaust--and in doing so, literally celebrate burning children. If that is the case, it must surely be the end of the road for Judaism--the Seder as Auschwitz's orchestra, but this time, the participants are willing contributors. This cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.

And that brings us back to what a Jew, at the Seder, ought to do. Confronted with the manner in which the apex of Jewish ritual is serving as a choir for the nadir, something has to give. Spilling a drop of wine, I feel, is clearly not enough. Is that seriously a credible response before burning children? It's like commemorating Yom HaShoah by spilling a drop of beer at Oktoberfest.

Another crucial part of the Seder is drinking four cups of wine throughout the evening. The drops of wine we spill are from (I believe) the second cup. Last night, at the first Seder, I experimented with a bit of protest theology of my own. Instead of spilling one drop at the tenth plague, I spilled the entire cup. The destruction of innocents does not just reduce my joy, it renders joy impossible in this context. More importantly, by deliberately violating a crucial component of the Passover Seder (not drinking four cups of wine), I register my dissent from the agent who carried the sword and committed the slaughter. I don't consider this sufficient either. But, in a very small way, it hopefully will reorient the celebration of Passover so that it can forthrightly face itself.


"Far be it from me to say that you are right; till I die I will maintain my integrity. I persist in my righteousness, and will not yield; I shall be free of reproach as long as I live." (Job 27:5-6)


  1. Anonymous9:01 PM

    I always interpreted the line "and God hardened Pharaoh's heart" to mean that Pharaoh's heart hardened the more he saw the results of God's power, a reading which would negate the part of your argument based on that line, although I admit the line reading is open to other interpretations, including yours.

  2. Nicely said. A friend invited me to seder this year, and your post makes me a bit relieved I had another committment that night, since I agree with your assessment of the genocidal implications of the plagues, but it would have been very inappropriate for me (as a Christian-Unitarian) to be making protest statements during the ceremony.

  3. Also, anonymous: unless the Christian translations of the Bible are severely mistaken, there's simply no way to interpret the heart-hardening the way you want to. The sequence of events goes plague, then Pharaoh tries to let the Israelites go, then God hardens his heart. And check out Exodus 10:1-2, which quite clearly states that the heart-hardening was done on purpose by God so that he'd have an excuse to inflict more suffering on Egypt:

    1 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them 2 that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD."

  4. Anonymous7:49 PM

    I really like the "You Tube" version of the 10 Plagues. It will give you a better perspective on them.

    See them Here, (Baytzim Research)

  5. Anonymous10:14 AM


    Great point. I guess you could try to interpret things differently, but maybe I won't argue. Don't forget that Job was always faithful though, despite it all.

    It's been a long couple of years I guess; glad to see you're learning a lot.

    Pax, shalom.

    DVO, bethesda.

  6. Anonymous4:24 PM

    God endowed Pharaoh, just as he endows the rest of us, with free will.