Striking the Egyptians: The Incomplete Redemption
(delivered by Rabbi J.B. on January 21, 2023)
Every year at the Passover seder everyone dips a finger in their cup of wine and spills one drop for each of the ten plagues. Why do we spill wine at the mentioning of plagues? Today the reason usually given is that by doing so we remind ourselves that although the plagues served as miracles for us, those miracles came at the expense of others. This explanation renders that Seder ritual as quite meaningful. Yet that moment of profound pause, even commemoration, ends rather quickly, as shortly thereafter we joyously sing as we remind ourselves of the acts God performed in order to take us out of Egypt:
Day, Day, Dayeinu;
Day, Day, Dayeinu;
Day, Day, Dayeinu;
The juxtaposition between the spilling of the wine to express concern about the loss of Egyptian life and the singing of Dayeinu to celebrate the saving of our ancestors’ lives has always felt, to me, quite jarring. So, nu, what does it really mean for us that our redemption comes at the expense of others’ suffering?
In this week’s Torah portion, Va’era, we are given the first seven of the ten plagues.
- Dam–the water of the Nile, Egypt’s lifeline, is turned into blood, cutting off not only the Egyptians’ drinking water but killing all of the fish that they may eat;
- Ts’fardei-a–frogs swarm the homes of the Egyptians—and, when the plague ends, the dead frogs become a public health cleanup disaster, and emit an unbearable stench;
- Kinnim–lice, and then
- Arov–insects swarm the earth and bodies of all Egyptian humans and animals;
- Dever–pestilence strikes all the animals of the Egyptians;
- Sh’chin–the Egyptians are struck with boils; and, finally,
- Barad–Egypt is struck by a rare hailstorm, one strong enough to utterly destroy anyone and anything left outdoors.
It is true that these acts ultimately brought us out of Egypt. Nonetheless, they caused terrible suffering for an entire nation, and all because of the actions of one ruthless leader.
The Talmud asks how we can praise G!d in the midst of such suffering. Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak cites the psalmist’s dictum :: עִבְדוּ אֶת ה׳ בְּיִרְאָה וְגִילוּ בִּרְעָדָ “Serve HaShem with awe and gilu bir-a-da, rejoice with trembling.” The Talmud naturally asks, “What does it mean to ‘rejoice with trembling’?” Rav Adda bar Mattana responds in the name of Rabbah : “One may not experience unbridled joy; even where there is rejoicing, there should be trembling.” It is this very section of Talmud, in fact, where we learn that we break a glass under the chuppah at a wedding to temper our joy, even if only momentarily, in order to acknowledge the suffering in the world around us.
It seems to me that the Torah has intentionally chosen throughout today’s Parashah to refer to these acts not as נסים/nissim, and נפלאות/nifla’ot, miracles and wonders. These are words we might have expected the Torah to use in highlighting our liberation from bondage. After all, it is our story. Neverthess, the Torah consistently uses the terms as מגפות/mageifot and מכות/makkot. Mageifot means “blows,” or even “slaughters,” while makkot, the root of which appears precisely ten times in this Torah portion, means “smitings” or “strikes,” the kind that cannot be defended or warded off, the kind that can permanently traumatize.
These horrific mageifot and makkot were suffered by the Egyptians. In choosing this language, in steering us away from our own liberation and, rather, toward the destruction of Egyptian life and land, the Torah sends us the same message Rabbah does in the Talmud: That is, we must be able to celebrate our own salvation while simultaneously mourning the losses suffered by our enemies. How do we hold both truths with appropriate balance? We begin to do so by consciously choosing the language we use, because although our language cannot eliminate suffering, it can affect how we might respond to it.
By using the words negef and makkah, “slaughter” and “smiting,” the Torah calls our attention to someone else’s catastrophe. It pushes us to acknowledge the realities of all people at the moment of the Exodus. Perhaps, in turn, that will open us up to new ways of relating to others, including Egyptians. After all, we both walk together in G!d’s world.
How we talk about something lets those who listen to us know whether or not we live up to the values we say we hold dear. The Torah’s use of two horrific words for “plague” enables us who listened to the Torah today know that the freedom of the Exodus was not a universal freedom, and that liberation came for only some, while others would continue to suffer, and while others still would carry around the suffering wreaked for the remainder of their lives. The Exodus cannot be considered a hatzalah sh’leimah, a complete liberation.
In our moment of celebration at the seder, perhaps the best we can do is to heed Rabbah’s advice and temper our joy by acknowledging the Egyptians’ losses. Yet as we look toward the future, how might we work to create a world in which we go beyond simply holding back from rejoicing at our enemies’ suffering, and spilling a mere drop of wine for every plague? We may not be the generation whose redemption is universal, but perhaps we can be the generation of catalysts.
After today’s Torah reading, let us leave services with open hearts, ready to hear the cries of others. And then let’s work to earn the reputation that we were the generation that strove to change what may seem like trivial seder fun, and explanations that sound like platitudes, into real compassion and real justice for those who really suffer.
And may any remaining tears be those of G!d, G!d’s tears of joy that we were the generation that helped turn the tide on hate, prejudice, oppression, and injustice, converting the world back into one that better resembles the creation of a G!d of love, a G!d of embrace, a G!d of hope, a G!d of peace. Amen.
 Psalms 2:11.
 BT B’rachot 30b.
 Before the actual plagues narrative, the text does state generically in Exodus 7:3 about “ototai and moftai,” “signs and marvels” that G!d will increase. It is unclear, however, if this refers to the plagues at all.
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