The Ten Plagues
Of blood, frogs, hail, & more.
The midrash further understands the hail to prefigure the punishment that, according to the Book of Ezekiel, God will bring on Gog and Magog in the war that will precede the coming of the messianic age. In linking the redemption of the Israelites from slavery with the ultimate redemption of the world, the midrash implicitly justifies any violence as a necessary means of reaching an unambiguously-positive end. Beyond being a punishment to the Egyptians, the plagues are a step in the process of redeeming the world.
Many contemporary explanations of the ten plagues attempt to reconcile the presumed suffering of the Egyptians with modern-day conceptions of ethics and treatment of the other. Rabbi David Teutsch, a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, for example, suggests that God is not, in fact, the author of the harshest plague--that of the murder of the firstborn of Egypt. Rather, he says, it is human beings who interpret this event as divine:
"How can we understand God's role in the death of the firstborn? One explanation suggests that all who did not defend the Israelite slaves in Egypt are responsible for what Pharaoh imposed. Thus, God's punishment of the Egyptians was justified. Another explanation holds that only in hindsight did the Israelites see the hand of God in the death of the Egyptians. God does not intervene in human history this way... By this reckoning, what is important is not whether the firstborn died, but whether we can see the power of human redemption in our lives as flowing from the divine" (Rabbi Joy Levitt and Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, ed., A Night of Questions, 61).
Rather than justify the plagues, some modern-day commentators instead try to sharpen our awareness of the suffering caused by these plagues in order to help us empathize with others who are oppressed. The Journey Continues: The Ma'yan Haggadah, produced by the women's program of the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, offers the following meditation on the plagues:
"As we ate our Pascal lambs that last night in Egypt the darkness was pierced with screams. Our door posts were protected by a sign of blood. But from the windows of the Egyptians rose an anguished cry: the death of the first-born.
"Yah Sh'chinah [an appeal to God using a term associated with God's feminine side]soften our hearts and the hearts of our enemies. Help us to dream new paths to freedom.
"So that the next sea-opening is not also a drowning; so that our singing is never again their wailing. So that our freedom leaves no one orphaned, childless, gasping for air" (Tamara Cohen, ed., The Journey Continues, 70).
Many Jews update the seder by supplementing the recitation of the biblical plagues with the mention of contemporary "plagues" such as war, hatred, and disease. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs' Immigrant Justice Haggadah counts as plagues "the detention of immigrants, unwarranted deportations, hate crimes, the denial of drivers' licenses and other services to undocumented immigrants, hopelessness, apathy, and fear of speaking out." The Love and Justice Haggadah includes in a tongue-in-cheek list of the plagues of contemporary life--"reality TV, muzak, and SUVs." Feminist haggadot add plagues such as sexism and violence against women; environmental haggadot mention the destruction of natural resources; and haggadot focused on inter-group relations speak of the plagues of prejudice and distrust.
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