In parashat Vaera, Rabbi Moshe Yehudai untangles the complicated implications of the ten plagues, identifying them, however uncomfortably, as the collective punishment that they were. Though the Exodus is the most important story in the history of the Jewish people, how can we reconcile it with the suffering it caused? How can any struggle for liberation reconcile the suffering it causes?
Image: Crossing of the Red Sea, Nicolas Poussin, 1634 cc: wikipedia
Our Joy is Not Whole: On Resistance in Exodus
by Rabbi Moshe Yehudai
The main subject of the first portions in Exodus is the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt and their exodus thereof–hence, the book’s name. The story of the exodus is the story of the transformation of the children of Israel from a mass of oppressed and humiliated slaves without self-awareness to a united people with common religious, spiritual and cultural values, embodied by the Torah, which they are given at the beginning of their journey through the Sinai. They also have a common destination: to settle in the land of Canaan and there to build themselves an independent national home where they will live in the spirit of the Torah.
But as we know it was not a simple or smooth exodus. We all know the story of the duel between Moses and Pharaoh – a prolonged duel in which Pharaoh refused Moses’s basic demand that became a resounding battle cry: “Let my people go!” Pharaoh wanted the Israelites as slaves, and why should he give up such a cheap workforce without a fight? Then begins the series of the Ten Plagues, and only after the hardest plague of all, the death of the firstborn sons, does Pharaoh heed Moses’s pleas and the exodus begins.
The story of the plagues raises many questions. One is about the important principle of free will, which Pharaoh is denied when God hardens his heart so that he does not listen to Moses. Whether the plagues actually occurred is another question. Both questions deserve separate discussions but I would like to focus on a different aspect, the moral aspect, which to me is the most important and significant question, beyond the other philosophical questions.
The question is what ethical-educational lesson we learn from the story of the plagues. Like any other mythological story, whether it actually happened or not is irrelevant.
Ahad Ha’am, the great Zionist leader and illustrious publicist, writes in his essay “Moses”:
“We have one Moses, our Moses, whose image has been fixed in the hearts of our people through the generations and whose impact on our national life has not ceased from the days of antiquity to the present. And just like I have no doubt as to the reality of Moses, so is his essence clear to me and will not be changed by any archaeological finding.”
The same is true for the plagues, which we have been well aware of for dozens of generations, especially when we sit around the Seder table on Passover and read about the plagues and the acronyms they were given by Rabbi Yehuda.
In various degrees, the ten plagues were a sort of collective punishment given to the whole Egyptian people.
And the LORD said unto Moses:
“Say unto Aaron: Take thy rod, and stretch out thy hand over the waters of Egypt, over their rivers, over their streams, and over their pools, and over all their ponds of water, that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout all the land of Egypt, both in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.” (7:19)
Rashi and other commentators explain the words “in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone” to mean that even the humidity in the wood and stones turned into blood, or in the idols.
Even if we take into account the fact that many Egyptians collaborated with the oppression of the Hebrews, we must still completely reject this punishment of preventing water from all the residents of Egypt for a week. There is no way we can view that as appropriate and just. The same is true to different degrees for the rest of the plagues.
Rabbi Yaacov Halevy Ben Moshe Moelin, Hamaharil (1360-1427), is considered the father of the customs of Ashkenaz. In his book “Customs of Maharil” he writes:
“It is the custom to discard a little bit from the cup with your finger when you come to ‘blood and fire and pillars of smoke,’ as well as when the ten plagues are mentioned collectively and separately, a total of sixteen times.”
The famous Torah commentator Rabbi Yitzhak Ben Yehuda Abarbanel, or Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), an economist, diplomat, philosopher and commentator, wrote in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, “Zevach Pesach”:
“The custom is to drip drops of wine out of the cup when counting the plagues to indicate that our joy is not whole because on our account an entire people was punished. Even though the enemy deserved that defeat, it does not cause us real joy.”
The non-Orthodox Haggadahs have adopted that custom, such as the American Reform Haggadah:
“Though we descend from those redeemed from brutal Egypt and have ourselves rejoiced to see oppressors overcome, yet our triumph is diminished by the slaughter of the foe, as the wine within the cup of joy is lessened when we pour ten drops for the plagues upon Egypt.”
The same appears in other liberal Haggadahs, including the Israeli Haggadah.
The Hallel, recited fully on Sukoth, Shavuoth, Hannukkah and, in Zionist congregations, on Independence Day as well, is also recited on the seventh day of Passover, the day when according to tradition our ancestors crossed the Red Sea only partly, by skipping. And the reason is this:
“In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would ye utter song before me?” (Sanhedrin 39:2 and elsewhere).
Assuming it occurred, the enslavement in Egypt was a massive violation of human rights, and the fight against it was totally justified. But like in any struggle for liberation, whether of a class, nation, race, religion or anything else, we must always question the price of the struggle and its justification, for both sides.
And I will end with a passage from the British Liberal Haggadah:
“Oh God, teach us to rejoice in freedom, but not in its cost for us and for our enemies. Let there come a day when violence is no more and we shall be free to rejoice without sadness, to sing without tears.”
Amen, so be it.