This year at the Seder, two questions came up among the participants. One is a perennial favorite — what’s the deal with the multiplication of the plagues by the rabbis? The second was much more emotional. Why should the killing of the Egyptian first-born be sung about joyfully in the Dayenu section?
As befitting the seder, a number of suggestions were offered, and a lively discussion ensued. But in the days following, I discovered what might be a very early source that can provide an answer to both questions.
I follow the custom of the Gaon of Vilna, who rules that on each day of every holiday, the morning prayers should conclude with a unique psalm for that day. On the second day of Pesach we recite Psalm the lengthy Psalm 78, which describes the redemption from Egypt, and expounds on the plagues God struck upon the Egyptians. After mentioning the familiar blood, frogs and locusts, verse 49 adds that God, “inflicted His burning anger upon them, wrath, indignation, trouble, a band of deadly messengers.” Since the text in Exodus makes no mention of God’s wrath or indignation, the rabbis concluded that this verse must be referring to additional aspects of each plague. The exact nature of these additional aspects are debated between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva in the Mekhilta midrash, with the former saying that these words mean that each plague should be multiplied by four, and the latter reading the words slightly differently, indicating a multiplication by five. Later, this midrash was included in some (but not all) haggadot, based on the principle that “anyone who expands upon the telling of the Exodus from Egypt, is indeed praiseworthy.”
On the third day of Pesach, Psalm 80 is the “song of the day.” It too tells the story of the Exodus, with the metaphor, “You plucked up a vine from Egypt.”
For some reason, this year I noticed the proximity of Psalms 78 and 80, and was curious about the content of the one between them – Psalm 79. It does not mention the Exodus at all, but still has a connection to the Seder. It includes the verse, “Pour out your fury on the nations” that we read after drinking the third cup.
This psalm starts with the chilling verses: “O God, heathens have entered Your domain, defiled Your holy temple, and turned Jerusalem into ruins. They have left Your servants’ corpses as food for the fowl of heaven, and the flesh of Your faithful for the wild beasts. Their blood was shed like water around Jerusalem, with none to bury them.” The historical context of this psalm is not the redemption from Egypt, but the destruction of Jerusalem centuries later.
My curiosity piqued, I looked at the other psalms in this section. I discovered that these two themes – the Exodus on the one hand, and the devastation on the other appear in almost all of the Psalms in what is referred to as the “Third Book” of Psalms, particularly those attributed to Asaph (Psalms 73-83).
In addition to what we already saw, the Exodus is mentioned in 74:13 (“You drove back the sea with Your might”), 77:16 (“By Your arm You redeemed Your people”) and 81:11 (“who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.”)
But even more common are the cries of despair, bemoaning God’s apathy to the sorry state the Jews were in: “Why, O God, do You forever reject us” (74:1), “Has His faithfulness disappeared forever? Will His promise be unfulfilled for all time? Has God forgotten how to pity?” (77:9-10), “How long will you judge perversely, showing favor to the wicked?” (82:2) and “O, God, do not be silent; do not hold aloof; do not be quiet, O God!” (83:2).
These verses are very difficult to read, and if they weren’t included in the Holy Scripture, perhaps they would be considered blasphemous. But in the context of who was saying them, it can be understood. For a people taught of the miracles of Egypt, of God’s incredible power, of His protection of His people, how else could they react to the events of their time?
And so for them, the recollection of the Exodus was not a pleasant story to be told before a tasty dinner. The ten plagues were not an opportunity to entertain the children with toys or puppets. When they declare God’s anger and wrath – it is a desperate prayer for His immediate intervention! And when they pray for God’s vengeance upon their enemies, these are not ancient foes, but their current oppressors!
And so this is the background we need to recall when we ask questions about how could we sing praises when God punished the the nations who tormented us. For centuries, Jews were powerless and felt abandoned by God. What helped maintain their faith was a connection to those times in history when God recalled his covenant and heard the cries of His people. They remembered those early victories and prayed they would someday return.
Without question, today we live in a very different time. We are no longer powerless. We have defeated our enemies with miracles of biblical proportions. Today Israel’s military strength is so established that for the first time in millennia, we do not have the daily fear of destruction.
But we should not let our current blessed state deafen us to the pain of our ancestors. Later this week we will mark Yom HaShoah and remember the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Many who suffered during that horrible time asked the same piercing questions that Asaph asked – “Where is God? Why is He silent? Why does He show favor to the wicked?”
And many also prayed for God’s vengeance upon their oppressors. And thank God, the Nazis were utterly defeated. For that we can surely sing, “Dayenu.”