More Dayenu, Less Plagues: Why Passover Must Evolve

On Monday, March 25th, I’ll be schlepping out to Massapequa Park on the Long Island Railroad with some of my kids in tow, off to Bubbe and Zayde’s for Passover. We’ll have a great time — games, food, talk — and then at some point during the ritual Pesach dinner there will come the moment when I’ll whisper to whoever is sitting next to me (probably my sister Sharon, because everybody else is tired of hearing me complain). Here’s what I’ll say, what I say every year: “I really don’t like this part.”

I’m talking about the celebration of the ten plagues, which apparently God inflicted upon the families of the Egyptian ruling class in order to help Moses and the Jews escape to Israel. There’s a whole lot of weird ritual at this point. We recite the list in unison, dipping our fingers into red Manischevitz wine (grape juice for the kids), flinging the drippings onto our plates as we recite. Yes, we do this, and it always brings uncomfortable laughter. Here’s the top ten list, straight from Exodus and the Haggaddah:

  • Blood
  • Frogs
  • Lice
  • Wild Animals
  • Murrain (cow disease)
  • Boils
  • Hail
  • Locusts
  • Darkness
  • Death of the first-born

It was the last plague that convinced the Pharoah to allow Moses to leave, and fortunately we stop here, and the Passover celebration gets better soon after (especially since, finally, we finish the Haggaddah and are allowed to eat). There are some parts of the Pesach ritual I do enjoy, like the singing of the rockin’ tune ‘Dayenu’, which can be seen here:

Actually, unfortunately, “Dayenu” isn’t usually as awesome as it is in this video. More often, it sounds like this:

Either way, I enjoy most types of ritual celebrations that don’t revel in the death of innocent children. But the plagues are ugly and ridiculous (frogs? lice? boils? really?), and the death of the first-born is hard to take, especially since we’re a big happy family sitting around a table with several generations of our own first-born and later-born (and adopted, and blended-born) enjoying each others’ presence.

Many have discussed this problem before. I found the photo at the top of this page on a Christian website called ‘Oregon Faith Report‘, accompanied by the photographer’s curious observation:

I was walking through Bed Bath & Beyond and stumbled a finger puppet display. At first glance of seeing the blood and animal attack puppet I thought it was a first aid finger puppet teaching tool. Upon further reading I noticed it advertised itself as the 10 Plague Finger Puppet set for kids. The puppets are based on the 10 plagues as told by the story of Moses and Egypt in the Book of Exodus. You have your hail, darkness, frogs, boils, lice and the most deadly — the firstborn plague. I would have never imagined such teaching tool and now I can only imagine how to walk through the story as a parent. For it to hit the marketplace shows that it has legs and that many Jewish families must have found something that works to help preserve their traditions.

Well, we Jews have lots and lots and lots and lots of traditions, and as far as I’m concerned, the celebration of the plagues is one we can start doing without. The funny Topless Robot blogger who posted ‘The 5 Most Disturbing Plague Related Passover Gifts‘ seems to agree.

And, in fact, the Haggaddah has already been made politically correct, as my father and brother are sure to remind me whenever I bring this up. “You should see the ones they used to use.” In the editions we run our Pesach with, there is a nice paragraph at the end about how we regret the suffering of our enemies, and how we wish peace for all peoples of the world. This is good. But it’s not yet good enough.

Why can’t we simply adjust the Haggaddah (an ever-evolving book that dates back about 1800 years, and has no single authoritative text) to deemphasize the part of the ritual that celebrates the suffering of our enemies? While it is a vital Jewish law that families gather to recite the story of Moses every year, I’m not convinced that the law mandates which aspects of the story we emphasize. I suppose it’s up to socially-aware Jews like myself to speak up when a change is needed, and that’s why I’m doing so today. I hope others will do the same.

One objection I’ve heard, when I’ve suggested that the tradition must evolve, is that any criticism of Jewish tradition may be motivated by anti-semitism, and that Jews should not respond to any criticism from outside the Jewish community. There are layers and layers of ethnic/historical hard feelings to dig through to try to resolve this type of dispute, so I try to respond by saying this: “Let’s not change the tradition because others tell us to. Let’s change it because it’s the right thing to do.”

I think Yahweh will forgive us if we finally stop reveling in a victory over our oppressors that took place three thousand years ago. It’s good sportsmanship, if nothing else. We can still enjoy the endless other weird Passover rituals, like the chewing of the bitter herb.

I’d love to know what others think about my suggestion that the Passover ritual must evolve, and I’d love to hear from Jews and non-Jews about this. Is it time for a change?

11 Responses

  1. This hits home with me
    This hits home with me particularly, Levi, because Passover is kind of a regressive holiday for me now — I leave town, go back to my parents’, and conduct the same seder rituals annually. But as the years pass I’m aware of who isn’t at the table anymore. When I was a kid my maternal grandparents used to come from Montreal to help my mom cook and clean and my dad lead the seder, and I have many fond memories of singing and entertaining my grandparents and lively discussions. But they are gone. Last Passover was just two months after my dad’s death, and the first seder night was just me, my mom, and my older brother. It was not a joyful experience. I’m more hopeful this time out, but it’s increasingly hard to get past what seems like needless sacrifice. One day I’d like to reclaim the holiday for my own and make something new out of it. Maybe next year.

    To go back to the topic at hand, though, the one line in the seder that has always spoken to me is this: “in every generation, you must act as if you personally went out of Egypt.” I take that to mean there is comfort in repetition, but there’s latitude — a lot of it — to make something new and meaningful out of the ritual. With that in mind I see no reason not to emphasize what makes the holiday so distinct, however you wish to do it. And while we’re after change: I’d be happy to see the whole “there were five plagues/50/200 plagues” competitive ridiculousness be excised. It’s pretty silly!

  2. Religions all depend upon
    Religions all depend upon certain amounts of rituals to keep their past alive. It’s good for religions to have these various ‘remembrances’ in order to perpetuate the feeling of community religions strive to keep alive, These are good for the religion ‘business’ which keeps the doors open for all the religions, perpetuating the rituals with each new leadership, teachers, preachers, priests, rabbis and imans.

    Therein lies the biggest obstacle religions are having in the 21st Century… so much information out there to be had does two things to religion – strengthens it and weakens it, each depending on the amount of indoctrination the followers have accepted (endured). Once we question our religious beliefs we begin a new journey of spiritual growth that may or may not produce fruit. This is good for religion if that religion is preaching and practicing as close to the Truth as the religion is able to do. If we see that every religion was created in the distant past, and we are products of these newer times based heavily on sciences and high technologies, we will continue evolving forward and the past will become more difficult to offer our thanks to.

    But given the shear numbers of people that continue turning to the religion of their upbringing, our religions will be with us for hundreds of years more but certainly evolve to fit current times, as they must do or lose their followers (just as you and Sarah have written).

  3. Mark, these traditions have
    Levi, these traditions have existed for thousands of years. I am sorry but in the Orthodox Judaism it will not change. I suggest you to find a good place where you can learn about the religion of your fathers.

  4. ..evolution, and reformation,
    ..evolution, and reformation, is always positive where religion is concerned. A religion, denomination, sect, faith, or faction does not exist that does not need updating. They all choke on traditions. Even the true ones.

  5. From my point of view, the 10
    From my point of view, the 10 plagues were God’s gift to the Jews in order that they may escape slavery. So I feel it is good to celebrate your gifts in any fashion you choose. This post reminded me of a prayer/affirmation my grand father always use to say aloud at any give time of the day or night: “God give, God take.”

    It could also be argued that the death of the first born were not innocent children. Their parents were transgressing against God, so in order for God to show his dominion and power, lessons had to be learned. They died because of their parent’s wrong doing. Much like the spirtual death many children encounter many times thoughout their lives because their parents never gave them the truth about God.

    I’ve never personally witnessed or participated in this ceremony, as I am not Jewish. So I could be a bit off base here. But yeah, God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament have some distinct personality differences.

  6. For Greek Orthodox Easter, we
    For Greek Orthodox Easter, we roast a whole baby lamb out on a spit in the backyard. When I say whole, I mean its head, feet, everything. The symbolism is that Jesus was like an innocent lamb who was sacrificed. It’s made especially important in that believers are supposed to fast during the days of Lent, so that the Easter lamb is the first meat they eat. This ties in with the 10 plagues of Egypt because for the last plague, the Israelites were spared when they sacrificed a lamb and marked the space above their doors with the lamb’s blood, roasting and eating the sacrificed lamb. In the Greek Orthodox faith, we mark our doors with the sign of the cross with the candles we carry back from the midnight Easter mass.

    I understand the tradition of eating the Easter lamb and its symbolism, but I was always horrified by this graphic and seemingly unnecessary death—which maybe is the point. A few years ago I became a vegetarian. One of the things I thought about was that it was only after the Fall that man began eating meat. There’s nothing in the bible that says Greek people must eat lamb on Easter. There is, however, a verse in the bible that talks about how we shouldn’t judge one another, and so I don’t judge someone who finds the tradition of eating lamb for Easter meaningful and tasty. I think the tradition does drive home the points of death and purity and sacrifice, and I think it opens the doors for conversation about the faith.

    I would imagine that part of the reason we have rituals is because they are a way for us to remember. There was a time before the printing press when people did not have easy access to the Torah or the New Testament. Dipping fingers into Manischevitz as if to suggest blood is like oral poetry, passed down from one generation to the next. The celebrations are a way to stop and think about these events every year. The tangibility of the Paschal lamb and the Manischevitz perhaps also gives a physicality to faith.

    This paragraph from Wikipedia perhaps gives credence to the doing away with some aspects of tradition:

    “It seems that the celebration of Passover waned from time to time, since other biblical books provide references to revival of the holiday.[18] For example, it was reinstated by Joshua at Gilgal,[19] by Josiah,[20] by Hezekiah[21] and, after the return from the captivity, by Ezra.[22] By the time of the Second Temple it was firmly established in Israel.”

    For many, religion is about traditions, culture, and family. Partaking in a tradition and living out a faith are two very different things, though.

  7. mmm is not the whole point of
    mmm is not the whole point of the plagues to tell pharohoho he is not god and the ten commandments on the other side, neither is Moses

    or am i mistaken

  8. My Greek brother-in-law
    My Greek brother-in-law roasts an entire lamp on a spit every Easter, which is a week earlier than American Easter. His entire Greek Orthodox Church has a big meal outdoors with all kinds of delicious Greek food. I enjoy it all but the lamb, which, in my opinion, tastes nasty.

    As for Passover customs, I think you should release a swarm of locusts in the New York Stock Exchange, and as people come running outside to escape the locusts, throw frogs at them.

  9. @ sarah, that last point you
    @ sarah, that last point you raised about the 10/100/500 plauges also bothered me; until i stumbled upon an old book which explained what was going on there. G-d made a promise that he will never repeat any of the “plague”s that were done in Egypt again. The Rabbi’s using their incredible deductive abilities tried to maximise the amount of plagues that according to a deductive analysis of torah could technically be derived. That part of the Hagada is showing how the Rabbis did all they could to ensure that these potential plagues will never happen again

    @Levi, The goal of the Seder is to try and transcend the Exile we find ourselves in, one where we have no temple and cannot fullfil all our religious responsibilities – we also try to transcend another fundamental aspect of exile, anti-semitism, and pray to G-d to entirely eradicate it. By commemorating the exodus from Egypt in this fashion it helps us draw inspiration to be a religious Jew and to keep strong faith in this anti-semitic exile, knowing that G-d will wipe out our enemies, will perform miracles and will help us do whatever it is that He needs us to do.

    Moshe warned Pharaoh of every single plague that was to come including the death of the first born, he as a ruler decided to nevertheless ignore Moshe, the death of the first born is HIS responsibility. The concept of a Monarchy these days is a bit hard to relate to, modern society and philosophy gives more power to the people, but in those days everyone relinquished their free choice to Pharaoh and therefore although the first borns did seem “innocent”, given their submission to Pharaoh they allowed him to put their lives at risk.

    We don’t dip our fingers and fling wine, we tip wine (representing G-d’s blessings) from the cup (a cup represents G-d’s atribute of Royalty and kingship- malchut) using our cognitive abilities, NOT our fingers, (which represent G-d’s cognitive capacities- not simply His action) onto a broken dish (representing this imperfect world).

    This ritual is a request from us to G-d that He use His cognitive capacities (one which we relate to) to pour down his blessings into this world of which He is the king so that he may fix this broken world- and then leshana haba we will indeed be in yerushalayim

    I think that the traditions do not need to be changed, but our understanding of them needs to be evolved, these laws and customs are divine and are expressions of our love to G-d, if previous generations lacked a philosophical or empathetic perspective which I feel now exists- I don’t simply write it off as old-timer-ness, rather try to use my G-d given Jewish brain to hit the old books and to read into the books as much as i can showing that there is a morality to each ritual, custom and commandment.

  10. Thanks to everybody for the
    Thanks to everybody for the comments. I did not expect instant agreement to my proposal, so I’ll just say that I appreciate everybody agreeing to discuss this calmly and openly. Every Jewish family’s Passover custom is unique, really, so the purpose of my proposal is really just to empower the “plague-haters” in every family (as I have long been the plague-hater in my family) to speak a little more loudly about their opinion, and to know that there are other plague-haters out here who also wish to respect the Passover ritual as a whole, and don’t wish to rewrite Jewish history, but also don’t feel comfortable with the strong emphasis on this one part of the ritual, and prefer not to pass this negativity on to future generations. I hope it helps a few people out there.

    Finally, my wife sent me this latest example: Martha Stewart (who, I think, as Jay-Z says, is far from Jewish) presents the Passover holiday special: a bag of plagues! Yow.

    Martha Stewart’s Passover Special.

  11. Thank you Levi Asher,
    Thank you Levi Asher,
    Your criticism is too mild. It is one thing to view the story of the ten plagues as a tale of retribution in ancient times. It is another thing to joyfully sing “Dayenu” in 2013. Let’s be frank. Expressing gratitude for the ten plagues is to affirm a punishment of collective responsibility on the all of the Egyptian people for the politics of the Egyptian monarch at the time. For Jews, or anyone who is a modern person, notions of collective guilt contradict our understandings of the rule of law and of individual responsibility. To be sure, the Book of Exodus presents the plagues as an escalation of punishments in the face of the refusal of the Pharoah to free the Jews. But no one today would or should celebrate the “slaughter of the first born” as an acceptable response to injustice. Today, we would call the killing of the first born to be a war crime. Over the centuries, I would imagine that the story of Passover–that is, passing over the houses of Jews,sparing their children but not passover over the homes of Egyptians–has given rise to a great deal of anti-Semitism. The story of the Exodus is a moving and wonderful one but the story of “Pesach” or “Passover” that is passing over the homes of Jews but not those of non-Jews is a relic of the ancient world and, as far as I am concerned, has nothing to do with the Jewish traditions that mean so much to me.

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