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Steven Bayar

An early Passover lesson

At the Passover Seder, when we recite the 10 plagues, it is our custom to dip our finger into our cup of wine and place one drop onto our plate for each plague. The traditional explanation is that since wine is the symbol of joy, when we recount the comeuppance of our oppressors, we keep the wine close. Yet there needs to be recognition that our oppressors are still God’s creatures, so we voluntarily lessen the amount of joy from the cup due to their plight.

What seems most significant to me — especially at this time — is that according to the text, Pharaoh and the Egyptians had several chances to stop the bloodshed. After each early plague, Pharaoh promised to free the hostages and abide by a truce but he always reneged when the threat was removed.

There came a point in the text when God (and perhaps Moses) said, “Enough is enough,” and no more chances were given. That is why in the latter plagues, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The tradition explains that when a person is bent on evil, there comes a point they can no longer evade the full consequences of their actions.

After all, how many chances should a persecutor be given? Pharaoh evidently was unconcerned with the welfare of his people, and they weren’t able to dislodge him. Does anyone seriously think the Israelites bore responsibility for their fate?

And yet, we do lessen the amount of wine to remind us, even thousands of years after the event, that God’s creatures died.

I am constantly amazed how our biblical text continues to explain and guide us through the most bizarre situations and, in doing so, illuminates the events of the text itself.

The situation in Gaza has reached proportions few could have foreseen. Yet anyone who understands Hamas (or who took their writings and statements seriously) knows that Hamas exists to destroy Israel and Jews without regard to the lives of the Palestinians we think they should care about. This is no different than the biblical description of Egyptian society.

Nor should we think that backing away helps Israel or the hostages any more than enabling the Egyptians to pursue us to the Red Sea.

Through the lens of historical time, we see that the relationship between Egypt and Israel has been a complicated one — at times as enemies and at times as allies. And, we also know from the biblical text that Isaac (the progenitor of the Jews) and Ishmael (his half-brother, progenitor of the Arabs) were able to unite in mourning their father, Abraham. I believe that in time there is the potential for peace in Middle East — but only after a modern Red Sea eradicates our modern-day Pharaoh and his minions.

A fascinating midrash recounts how only one in 10 Israelites actually left Egypt. The rest died and were buried in Egypt (fact!). But those few made possible the survival of Israel as a people. Are we reliving the biblical text today?

About the Author
Rabbi Steven Bayar recently served as Interim Rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in San Antonio, TX. Ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn, NJ, where he served the pulpit for 30 years, and teaches at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, NJ. He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly and Rabbis Without Borders, and has trained as a hospice chaplain, a Wise Aging facilitator, and a trainer for safe and respectful Jewish work spaces. He’s the co-author of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education,” “Rachel & Misha,” and “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
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