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Discussing War Crimes at the Seder

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When reciting the 10 plagues at the seder, many of us have the custom of spilling drops of wine. My father used to spill a drop from his winecup into a bowl along with water from a pitcher, a splash for each plague and then all the wine and all the water for the last one. This symbolically acknowledges the suffering and loss of life the plagues caused the Egyptians even as we celebrate our deliverance.

The moral difficulty in the retelling of the plagues is that the plagues do not just target Pharaoh, his army, or his task masters. Instead, they target all of Egypt. The Torah is explicit about this, to the point that regarding the final plague it says, “There was no house in which there was not death (Exodus 12:30).”

International law has over time developed restrictions on warfare. Central among these is the principle of distinction- armies may attack one another, but they may not indiscriminately attack the enemy population and must take precautions to lessen civilian harm. Refusal to do so is a war crime. It’s likely that this is what purposefully killing the first born child in every family would today be called.

We may ask, then, what it means that an act so counter to our current system of law and values is central to the Passover story. Perhaps it simply shows that the world has changed- what was commonplace and acceptable in a more violent, less regulated time has finally, thank goodness, been outlawed.

Or maybe all the plagues, including the killing of the firstborn, were somehow justified. Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah (12:29), suggests this. He says that it was acceptable for the plagues to target all of the Egyptians because every citizen of Egypt benefited from the Israelites’ enslavement.

But that’s a claim we would not accept today. The laws of armed combat define a civilian as anyone who is not taking part in hostilities. This is regardless of their political opinions or economic interests. Even Egyptians who were in favor of enslaving the Israelites and made use of the storehouses the Israelite slaves built would still be considered civilians. This is crucial, because otherwise vast swaths of the population could lose their protected status. Rashi’s rationale allows the exact type of widespread destruction international law currently aims to prevent.

We might consider the plagues somehow an exception because the Torah says they were done by God. But this reasoning is ripe for abuse. Countless death and destruction has been wrought throughout history by people claiming to know God’s will or claiming their horrific acts are necessary to somehow please God and achieve God’s purpose. If killing all of Egypt’s firstborn was okay because God did it, what will we say to those who say they are certain of what God wants and are ready to commit what would otherwise be war crimes in his name?

Perhaps killing Egypt’s first born really was wrong. Maybe just as Abraham pleaded when God wanted to wipe out Sodom, Moses should have argued and demanded that God find a better way. In this case, the plagues serve as a stark reminder that especially when fighting for a just cause such as freedom from slavery, it is easy to become self-righteous and get carried away. We can use the recitation of the plagues at the seder to remind ourselves that it is only proper to fight for our own rights when we do so using methods that are in keeping with law and morals. Otherwise we will find ourselves violating the rights of others even as we seek to reclaim our own.

War crimes are all over the news, particularly as related to the current situation in Gaza. The topic may well come up at our seders, even though it can be difficult and uncomfortable to discuss.

But the Passover story itself provides a framework for grappling with these same issues. And it may be easier to talk about limits on violence in the context of Moses and Pharoah, where the story is distant and familiar, rather than in the tragic context of the current war.

One of the reasons given for reciting only the half Hallel on the intermediate and final days of Passover is that we lessen our joy because the delivery of the Israelites involved drowning the Egyptians in the sea. These ethical questions have troubled Jewish thinkers continuously since the times of the Talmud. By engaging with them at the seder we give current meaning to the ancient story, and we use it to help us better formulate our views about pressing issues today.

About the Author
Shlomo Levin received Rabbinic ordination from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and Yeshivat Hamivtar, and an M.A. in International Law and Human RIghts from the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica. He is the author of the Human Rights Haggadah, which highlights human rights issues in the Passover story with Jewish and secular sources along and questions for discussion. Learn more at http://www.hrhaggadah.com.
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