As Passover ends and those of us who observe the holiday allow hametz – leavened foods – back into our homes and our lives, it is worth reflecting on what all the fuss is over, and whether we should make such a fuss at all.
Holidays are carved from daily life for a purpose, and often, the mode of observance dovetails the meaning of the holiday. Not always; some holidays, especially secular ones like bank holidays in Britain or Presidents’ Day in the US, are observed, if at all, with a mere day off work and a sale at the mattress store. Other holidays may have a greater or lesser confluence between observance and meaning.
Jewish holidays tend to have a relatively deep connection between meaning and observance, and Passover among the deepest. In particular, the Seder – the ritual meal with which Passover begins – recounts a story of liberation from oppression, and asks us to accept anew the legacy of emancipation, although it comes at a price. The price is symbolized by eight days of matzah, but that stands in for the whole price of our freedom as a people: keeping the Sabbath, refraining from pork, 613 commandments actually, but by celebrating Passover we affirm that freedom is worth the price.
Moreover, many people now use Passover’s theme of emancipation as a platform for universalizing our emancipatory politics; hence some put an orange on the Seder plate to symbolize the emancipation of women; recently some have used a tomato to symbolize the struggle of farm workers in contemporary America; and many – particularly in this 50th year of the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza – now use an olive to mark the oppression of Palestinians under a state that purports to act in the name of all the Jews of the world.
These attempts to universalize the emancipatory meaning of Passover seem to reflect a modern, secular worldview that affirms a universal equality of persons and peoples and a consequent discomfort with the view, fundamental to historical Judaism, of the Jews as a people apart; rather than say that God has chosen us “mi kol ha’amim,” out of all peoples, we may now say he has done so “im kol ha’amim,” with all peoples.
But there is a much older tradition of ethical reflection on the story of emancipation, one that grapples with the cost of emancipation, not to those who must obey, but to the people who had to be vanquished. Emancipation was achieved, so the story goes, only through a collective punishment visited upon Egypt to coerce the Pharaoh to emancipate the Israelites.
Acknowledging the cost to the Egyptians is central to the holiday. For instance, before drinking a glass of wine to celebrate liberation, we lessen our joy by spilling from the glass ten drops, one for each plague. Yet if we take the plagues seriously, this momentary pause seems worse than inadequate. To take the plagues seriously would be to invert the meaning of the holiday altogether.
The first nine plagues seem underwhelming. We recite them placidly – blood, frogs, lice, etc. – because they pale in comparison to the tenth. But try to imagine what it must have been like to suffer the first nine plagues. The Nile oozes with blood. An army of frogs invades. Lice infest one’s body. The livestock sicken and die. Darkness blots out the sun. Locusts devour the harvest. These first nine plagues would not just cause terror, disease, and famine, but would shatter worlds. Metaphysical order – the conception of reality that gave a point to any Egyptian’s plans – would be smashed: there is an unstoppable force in the universe, and it hates us. Why do anything?
Then finally, after life has lost meaning and purpose, when there is nothing left to live for, comes the killing of the firstborn sons of Egypt. Picture the parents: beaten into submission, emaciated, covered in boils, not knowing how many more plagues there might be. They may have felt that death was a mercy, wishing that their child’s escape had come sooner.
Even down the generations, we shrink from the tenth plague. To assuage our conscience or God’s, we blame the Pharaoh: it was his oppressive regime that stirred God’s wrath; it was his stubbornness that brought the plagues as punishment; it was his recalcitrance that brought the tenth plague; it was his diabolical plan for the sons of Israel that God turned against the sons of Egypt. Positively rumsfeldian. At most, this could justify punishing the Pharaoh alone: not his son, not an entire nation.
Sure this is horrible by today’s standards, we might protest, but in that era, whole peoples would be routinely put to the sword for no crime at all. It was standard practice in the ancient Mediterranean: “Carthage must be destroyed!” By that standard, killing only the firstborn is merciful. The lure of temporal relativism is strong. But the issue is not whether contemporary observers would be baffled by collective punishment; it is whether we today should celebrate the freedom thereby gained.
Or we might suggest: the people of Egypt – “good Germans” of their day – were complicit; they lived off the spoils of enslavement and oppression. The wealth of the rich was built on the poverty of the poor. And then, gaining confidence in this narrative as it rolls off the tongue, conveniently linking our vanquished oppressors across the millennia, we would insist that those who are complicit in structural injustice are morally accountable.
This is surely true. And yet infants, toddlers, young children were not yet complicit. It remains a heinous crime against an innocent population. And anyway, even the fully grown firstborns were, for the most part, merely complicit, and complicity is not culpability. Complicity is wrongful, but is not criminal; it does not merit punishment, still less execution. There can be no justification, nor even any excuse, for any of the plagues: for the tenth or the first or any in between. What kind of a God could do such a thing? What kind of people worship such a God?
Philosophers have recently begun to consider the responsibilities of those who benefit from injustices for which they are not responsible. As a white citizen of both Canada and the United States, I benefit from the history of colonialism, genocide, enslavement, and segregation. I am not culpable; I am not even complicit in the historical (as opposed to ongoing) aspects of these crimes. Yet it seems highly plausible that, together with other innocent beneficiaries, I owe something to somebody by way of rectification or repair. Celebrating Passover, being cheerful about our freedom, may then seem to be like celebrating Columbus Day: a decent person doesn’t do it.
One might protest that these are not the same. We are talking thousands of years ago. Does anyone or anything from the Pharaonic age exist today? Did the Passover story even happen? Were the Israelites ever enslaved at all? Even if there is a historical grounding for the story of the plagues, the reality must have been wholly naturalistic; a clever demagogue could – even while insisting he had no talent for oratory – exploit superstitions about natural disasters to gain his people’s freedom. But such creative radicalism is awesome, not criminal.
Yet historical accuracy is not the point. The point of Passover is to affirm that I accept my emancipation, even though it came with the steep price of ten plagues. If we take that price seriously, can we truly celebrate our emancipation, or even accept it?
Let us ask the question bluntly: if you could go back in time to just before the 10th plague, when its nature had been decided, but it had not been carried out, and you could choose to accept your freedom at the cost of the lives of every firstborn, or refuse your freedom to spare them, which would you choose? Perhaps we can be forgiven if we accept our freedom at that price. A moment of weakness or rage after decades of harsh enslavement. But now that the rage has subsided, should we still celebrate our freedom? Should we instead atone for it?
The link between the new ethic that universalizes our emancipatory politics – the olive on the Seder plate – and the older tradition that grapples with the cost to the Egyptians may then be closer than it seems. It is through the former that we can have a hope of redeeming the latter.
Featured image credit: Yachatz, by Eugene Kim. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.