Pesach Seder engages children in our national story. The Haggadah states ‘it is a Mitzvah to discuss the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and all who do so at length are praiseworthy ‘.
This is something multi-generational – ensuring our oral history becomes a legacy for the ages. The story of freedom and redemption has captivated audiences through words, art and poetry for thousands of years, and more recently, even in cinema.
Those of us familiar with the Haggadah will note that the 10 Plagues occur almost at the crescendo of the Maggid portion. At this point, Sephardim and Ashkenazim have a tradition of removing some wine from the 2nd of the 4 wine cups – either by dipping our finger 10 times into the cup and onto a plate or pouring off 10 sips into a separate bowl. Then it’s immediately removed from the table. (As children we were sternly warned not to lick the remaining drops from our finger!)
A custom I heard of this year, is to pour off the 10 spills into a glass bowl filled with water, to watch the actual transformation from clear to deep red – the colour of blood. And then the content is disposed, not down the drain, but outside of the house.
Where do these customs come from? Many are quoted in ancient rabbinic literature. We spill a bit of wine to demonstrate that our joy is not complete since it came at the suffering of others, even if they were deserving of punishment.
There is a well-known statement in the Talmud (TB Megillah 10b) concerning the crossing of the Red Sea. The Angels wanted to sing praises to the Almighty as the Egyptian soldiers perished. God said, ‘my creatures are drowning, and you want to sing?’ So, the angels refrained from rejoicing while the Israelites composed the Song of the Sea.
To me this conveys that, first, those who directly experienced suffering can use song as a form of healing. And second, that a God of Mercy takes no joy in the punishment of the wicked but rather in their return. It raises an interesting question, ‘as free human beings, how should we feel and act today toward our enemies?’
The 10 plagues are followed by the puzzling paragraphs of Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva who vied with each other to define the number of plagues in Egypt and at the Red Sea. Each proposed a multiple of the original 10 plagues.
Most of us at this point in the Seder are hurrying the leader to get to the meal. But this section is a lesson in Gratitude. If our release occurred with 50 or 200 or 250 plagues and not just 10 – how much must we recognise and appreciate our good fortune! This is also one of the reasons that before the meal we recite Dayeinu and begin singing Hallel – a song of praise, hope and appreciation.
Why is gratitude relevant for the Israelites who left Egypt and for us still today?
Because, to a degree, it immunizes us from despair. In contrast with Fear, which is a sense of imminent danger – despair is an ongoing mental state depriving us of vitality. It sees no prospect of future improvement.
Ancient slaves, one might speculate, had little to look forward to each morning. More bricks to form and pyramids to build – an endless, meaningless and dangerous drudgery.
Perhaps we too, locked in our homes these past months, have felt despair toward the future. No doubt we have all suffered, we’ve lost loved ones, possibly even our livelihood and it is not entirely over.
We may again be isolated from family members, yet this Pesach, we can choose to empower ourselves with gratitude for the many blessings that thus far have been part of our survival during the global pandemic. In marking the anniversary of the first national lockdown, shall we take a moment during the ritual of the 10 plagues to be grateful for our survival as a Jewish people, and more immediately – as a human race.
May we be blessed to celebrate Pesach this year in good health … daring to dream of next year in Jerusalem!
Rabbi Jeff Berger