Thursday, April 1, 2010

Don't Passover the details

The Seventh Plague, John Martin, 1823

There are many aspects of the Biblical record that are disturbing. But, Torah is not a simple collection of sweet children's stories and morality plays; it's a record of a people's relationship with their G-d, and as such, both good and bad are depicted. In other words, the nasty stuff could have been excised to make us look better, but morally, it made more sense to leave in abhorrent behaviour so that later generations could discuss and learn. These discussions make up the Talmud, and other texts.

The depiction of the Exodus includes a number of actions that depict both G-d and the Hebrews in a disturbing light. Why did G-d harden Pharaoh's heart so that more plagues could be unleashed? Why did the Hebrews need to liberate a fortune in silver and gold from the emotionally-broken Egyptians when they fled?

And why celebrate a festival in which multitudes of innocent Egyptians perished so that we could be free?

The answer is, we don't. During the seder, we dip wine in remembrance of the plagues and the Egyptians killed. As well, there's a significant Midrash (interpretive teaching) which is often discussed during the Passover season, in which the angels are chastised by G-d for celebrating the deaths of Egyptians:

"The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: 'My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'" (Sanhedrin 39a)

It would be a mistake to deny ourselves an opportunity to celebrate on the grounds that others suffered. This is generally the outcome of any conflict. We can both celebrate and memorialize at the same time; they're not mutually exclusive conditions. It would also be a mistake to whitewash history - even religious history - when we can learn from the past. Passover is not an exercise in self-congratulations; it's an annual reminder of human suffering, an opportunity for improvement on a spiritual level, and a catalyst for action in a world in which man-made adversity continues.

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