A long green cloud appears in the night sky and hovers next to the moon. It then breaks into witch-like fingers and descends to earth. I’ll never forget that scene, as well as the eerie music accompanying it.
It comes from the classic 1956 film The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston as Moses, and depicts the start of the last plague against the Egyptians, the Death of the Firstborn. I first saw the film as a kid around Easter time in Wisconsin, where I grew up. It was one of those holiday movies intended to get you in the Easter (or Passover) spirit.
That cloud gave me a good scare (you can watch the scene on YouTube). As it begins to descend on Egypt, a man, presumably Jewish, stops splattering the blood of a sacrificial lamb on his doorpost and turns around to marvel at the sight. Common man, I thought, this is no time for curiosity. You’d better finish the job and get inside.
This cloud/gas/death mist – whatever you want to call it – snakes its way through the streets amid the shrieks and moans of Egyptian mothers. A man collapses, followed by one of pharaoh’s generals. Finally, it creeps into the room of pharaoh’s son, killing him, while “passing over” the Jews.
You can imagine the questions this raises for a child, especially one who knew nothing about the Jewish tradition, for I was raised Catholic. I didn’t reflect on it at the time, but must have archived this scene in my mind as simply representative of an altogether different and terrifying conception of God.
Fast forward 30 years and I find myself in – of all places – Israel. I arrived in 2010 for a year-long study abroad program at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. By the end of it, I had met a girl from Jerusalem and fell in love. We got married and had a child. I’m still here.
Even after three or four years of living in Israel, I remained bewildered about many things Jewish. Yahweh was still frightening. More bewildering were the odd things this God required you to do. To be honest, I made little effort to understand Jewish practices. And when Passover rolled around, I was mainly annoyed by it all. I disliked the covered sections of the supermarket, sealing off my beer and favorite snacks, as if to say “suck it up goy, you’re not exempt.”
Judaism, to me, seemed to be one big jumble of commands that didn’t make sense. Let’s just take the scene above. To be successfully passed over, the Bible says you must sacrifice a lamb, and not just any lamb. It must be “without blemish” and “a male of the first year.” Its blood had to be smeared “on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the house.” Then, it had to be roasted and eaten with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
This part of Exodus, like many other parts of the Bible, is one “ye shall” after another. Ye shall do this, ye shall do that, yadda yadda yadda.
So many arbitrary rules. Who has the time or patience? Don’t get me wrong, if it will save me from that deadly mist then I’m all in. But in normal times, what’s the point?
My view of Judaism began to change when I encountered the writings of the Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–1994). An Orthodox Jew who was highly knowledgeable about Western philosophy, Leibowitz described Jewish practices in ways that made sense to me. His collection of translated essays titled Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State was particularly illuminating.
In one essay, he argues that what’s distinctive about Judaism is its emphasis on practice. Belief and faith, he explains, rarely happens because one sits back, contemplates the world, and then decides, sure, I’ll believe in God. Rather, faith comes from imposing a set of practices – anchored around the mitzvot – on everyday life.
“Faith in God is not what I know about God, but what I know about my obligations to God,” he once said. He compared this idea to the work of a housewife who gets up every day and washes the dishes or does the laundry over and over again. She persists in her work which begins anew each day.
Leibowitz helped me see all those arcane rules and obligations in a different light. Faith is the realm of repeated action undertaken in highly-specified ways in worship of God. It explains a lot, including the Haggadot which set forth a very precise order for the Passover Seder.
I’ve come to realize the power of connecting to this and other time-honored rituals, putting Jews in a conversation and a set of practices that stretch back centuries. I was surprised to discover that the earliest surviving Haggadah, known as the Cairo Genizah, dates back to the 8th century, even though the practice itself is much older. Scholars say the text is strikingly similar to our modern-day Haggadot.
In the next scene from The Ten Commandments a man named Joshua runs through the streets and bursts through the door to Moses’s home where the prophet is gathered around a table with others. “If it is not forbidden to look upon the breath of pestilence, then see, for it is here,” Joshua tells them.
Moses grabs the young boy who rises to see and says: “Do not look, Eleazar. Close the door, Joshua, and let death pass.”
With a different kind of “pestilence” in the air these days, this Seder will surely be unique. Let’s hope this too will pass, and pass quickly.