Jewish traditions bids us to begin discussing Passover a month prior to the holiday, and certainly when we reach the month of Nissan (which began this past Tuesday). Because the laws of Passover are the most intricate of all the festivals, there is much to learn and review, so that we will be fully prepared when the Days of Wine and Matzot actually begin.
But along with the numerous halachot, it is also imperative that we relate to the message, the meaning behind these laws, so that we see the bigger picture of the Festival of Freedom, and understand how it relates to us. This is exactly what the Haggada means when it tells us, “In every generation, each person must see himself as if he personally had participated in the Exodus.”
Certainly one of the centerpieces of the Exodus story is the account of the Ten Plagues. These were the Divine body-blows that brought Pharaoh and the Egyptians to their knees, compelling them to finally free the enslaved and embittered Hebrews after more than a century of bondage. The Plagues begin by attacking Egypt’s primary god, the Nile, and move on to decimate their agriculture, their economy and finally, with the Slaying of the Firstborn, their bodies.
Many see the Ten Plagues as punishment in kind, for all the abuse and atrocities heaped upon us by the Egyptians.
They robbed us of our humanity, they enslaved us, they beat us, even killed us when we did not meet their quota of bricks. And so they brought upon themselves all the calamity wrought by the plagues.
Indeed, while some commentators explain that the pouring out of drops from our cups of wine as the Ten Plagues are read at the Seder represents our regret that the Egyptians had to suffer, others maintain that the red wine we spill really symbolizes the Jewish blood shed during those terrible years in Egypt.
Others see the Plagues as an affirmation of God’s power, as He sought to sway Pharaoh to the belief that there is one, overarching power that guides the universe, rather than a smorgasbord of deities – including the Pharaoh himself – that control Man’s destiny. This, indeed, was the “endgame” of the Exodus, the underlying reason why God did not just bring one, massive disaster upon Egypt in order to free His people. It was meant to be a step-by-step learning process for the Egyptians, so they could see that every element of life – save their own freedom to choose – is under Heavenly control.
Alas, they never did get the message, remaining obstinate until the end, and so their preeminence as a nation disappeared forever at the bottom of the Reed Sea.
But there is another way of viewing the Ten Plagues that I believe is most significant for us today. It holds that the plagues were meant to impact not so much on Pharaoh or on the Egyptians, but rather primarily on the Jews themselves.
They were the central recipients of the plagues’ power.
After so many years of being demonized and downtrodden, their spirit crushed and their self-respect decimated, this once-proud nation that had beheld God’s majesty while receiving the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai was in dire need of a comprehensive, “over-the-top” shot in the arm to restore their confidence and courage.
They had to witness, over and over again, just how intense was God’s love for them, how He was prepared – literally – to move Heaven and Earth on their behalf. Only then could they regain their rightful place as His chosen people, a “nation of priests and princes” that would carry forward through history bearing His moral message to humanity.
Although the people’s faith would waver now and then, in the aftermath of the plagues and the splitting of the sea we regained once and forevermore the knowledge that, with God’s help, we could overcome any crisis and climb any mountain.
Fast-forward to modern times. The year is 1947. The Jewish nation had survived the Holocaust, the worldwide attempt to remove us from history once and for all. Battered and bruised, our ranks depleted and our world in disarray, we gathered up our survivors and set out to reclaim our dignity. We faced overwhelming odds, but we were determined to build a homeland where we could finally, once again, control our own destiny.
Yet how could this ragtag, traumatized shell of a people achieve the impossible? It could only come about in miraculous fashion. Indeed, even the secular David Ben-Gurion acknowledged as much.
When told by his Allied advisers that “only a miracle” could prevent the fledgling State of Israel from being destroyed by our Arab neighbors, he smiled and said, “Then I’m not worried; we are a people of miracles!” And so followed a series of what can only be described as Heavenly events, which stunned the world and restored our independence: The War of Liberation, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur comeback, the absorption of millions of immigrants, the creation of a vibrant economy, and an army of holy citizen-soldiers that has repelled a wave of anti-Jewish terror unlike anything the world had seen since the Nazis. All the prophets of doom were forced back into their caves; we have borne witness to a veritable Ten Plagues and more, which has confounded our enemies and raised our spirits to biblical heights.
But the lesson of all this Divine benevolence must never be lost on us. We cannot, we must not, abdicate our self-respect and faith in ourselves. We must never again cower and collapse before the forces of evil who still seek our demise, who may always seek our demise. We must stand up tall and proud and – in the words of the anti-drug movement– “Just say no!” to the psychotic release of murderers, to the insane concessions demanded by the Palestinians, to the disgraceful pressure of America and the West, who beckon to us to abandon our ideals of justice and fair play and jeopardize our security. We are Israel, we claim the moral high ground, and we bow to no nation.
The Passover story provides the only answer to those who would again seek to enslave our freedom, and make us doubt our eternity. “What are you scared of?!” the Haggada reassures us. “If you overcame Pharaoh and Hitler and Stalin, will you not overcome your present adversaries?” Pride is a funny thing. When misused, it can lead to arrogance and avarice, and can, indeed, “go before the fall.” But when applied properly, by leaders who are not afraid to lead, it can shore up our sense of self-respect, make us aware of our own greatness, and help us stay solidly on the path to what is surely our present-day Season of Liberation. ■ The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rabbistewartweiss.com