Mixed Messages

It’s been a very difficult few weeks for all of us — and by all, I mean our local geographic and faith communities as well as our brothers and sisters of all geographic and faith communities throughout the world. But my calendar tells me that in just a few days, my personal community — the Jewish Standard’s and Times of Israel’s community — will be sitting down to our Pesach sedarim.

For many, they will be unlike sedarim of years past; having fewer participants and more limited menus (though most will no doubt follow the established custom of having too much food), or celebrating alone at home rather than with parents, children, other family, friends, or at a Pesach program, shul, or community hall. And probably for most, the sense of yom tov spirit and joy will be accompanied, perhaps even overshadowed, by feelings of angst and trepidation.

But with all these changes, much will be the same. And thus, as we recite the 10 plagues, we will follow the universal custom of pouring out one drop of wine for each plague to diminish our joy. One reason for this custom is that the eser makot — the 10 plagues — inflicted significant suffering on the Egyptian people, and, as we are taught in Mishlei (24:17), binfol oiyvecha al tismach — do not rejoice in the downfall of your enemy.

This custom also is based on the well-known midrash found in the Talmud (Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 39b) that when the waters of the Red Sea engulfed the Egyptian army, the angels in heaven began singing praises to God, who quickly stopped them with the rhetorical admonition: ma’aseh yadai tovim beyam ve-atem omrim shira? My creatures are drowning in the sea and you are singing before Me?

This moral lesson of sensitivity to the destruction of one’s enemies is not, however, without difficulty. At the very time the angels were rebuked for praising God, the Jewish people sang their own praises in the song we call the Shirah. And there was no Godly chastisement to this song. Indeed, this Shirah, Az Yashir, has been chanted as part of our liturgy over the generations.

So why the admonition to the angels and not the people? One answer is that it was the Jewish people, not the angels, who were at risk in the Red Sea, and who is doing the rejoicing makes a difference: potential victims or mere, even if caring, bystanders. This explanation, though, brings us back to, and raises a question about, the custom of pouring off wine at the seder. Since, during its servitude in Egypt, Bnai Yisrael’s continued existence was in danger of being lost in the mists of history, why are we not entitled to recite the 10 plagues, heralding our salvation, over full cups of wine, with unmitigated joy?

And I mean “we” and “our” literally since, while sitting at the seder and reciting the Haggadah, we are not merely remembering the exodus, we are re-experiencing it; as the Haggadah teaches us, in every generation chayav adam lirot et atzmoh keilu hu yatzah mimitzrayim — we must act as if we personally are being redeemed from Egypt. So why this heightened sensitivity to the pain and suffering experienced by our enemies during the plagues, but a lower one to that endured at the Sea of Reeds? Are we not being presented with a mixed message about the proper way to react, in the midst of salvation, to the destruction of our enemies?

Indeed, this question can be asked about Passover in general, because mixed messages are basic to its very essence. It’s a holiday of slavery and oppression (avdut) and salvation and freedom (herut); of absolute bitterness and pain (kulo marror) and sublime royal comfort and luxury (kulanu mesubin). Matzah, too, Pesach’s primary symbol, presents a mixed message through the dual meaning of its name lechem oni. On the one hand it means the bread of affliction, reminding us of our 190 years of slavery in Egypt; on the other, it’s the food upon which we recite the Haggadah and Hallel and associate with the tale we tell our children of God’s miracles and salvation.

Of course, the majority of our tradition’s messages and teachings are clear. As a rule, halacha teaches us what’s permitted and what’s prohibited, what’s kosher and what’s treyf. Nonetheless, Pesach is not unique, since mixed messages in Jewish thought and practice exist in other areas — to take one example, capital punishment. On the one hand, there are no fewer than 15 declarations in the Torah of mot tamut — and you shall surely be put to death — covering 36 capital crimes. On the other hand, of the rabbis in the Mishna (Makkot 1:10) discussing the death penalty, even the most pro capital punishment advocate agrees that a court that puts one person to death in seven years is called a destructive tribunal; the most opposed would never have executed anyone. Here too, the message is mixed.

Why then mixed messages? Perhaps to teach that in some circumstances there’s no one correct and straightforward approach. Rather, the Torah imparts values — sometimes clashing ones — that we need to consider and weigh in deciding how to act in certain thorny and difficult situations. When grappling with the downfall of our enemies, we’re offered the values of both sensitivity (ma’aseh yadai tovim beyam) as well as overwhelming gratitude to God engendering joy (the Shira’s ashirah lashem ki ga’oh ga’ah — I will sing unto the Lord for He is highly exalted). It’s up to us to balance these values against each other and incorporate aspects of each to formulate an appropriate response — frequently a compromise — in a particular situation.

The same is true with capital punishment. There’s no one easily stated Torah viewpoint regarding the death penalty. Rather, we’re given a set of values to carefully consider and evaluate before deciding on an approach to this life and death question that remains controversial today. Thus, supporters must take seriously, and view with trepidation, the dangerous possibility of courts of law evolving into courts of destruction; they must understand that using the ultimate penalty leaves no margin for error. And opponents (like me) cannot easily ignore the oft repeated words mot tamut; we must understand that there are evil deeds so heinous that those committing them have forfeited — even if only theoretically — their right to live.

And to turn to the burning questions that grip the world today: How do we act in a time of plague? How do we triage not only our medicine and medical equipment and services but also our emotions and human interactions? How do we weigh personal safety against the need to include and care for the lonely, the isolated, the friendless, the forlorn, the vulnerable? How do we balance support and compassion against protection and wellbeing?

There are, of course, no easy or perfect answers, no one-page Torah crib sheet with simple directions. But we do have relevant Torah values — indeed, universal ones — to guide us and our civic leaders: the vital need to protect our personal health and safety (ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshotechemDeut., 4:15) and the critical importance of concern and love for others (exemplified by ve-ahavta le-reacha kamochaLev., 19:18). Using an amalgam of these sometimes discordant values will serve us well as we try, with the help and advice of our leaders, teachers, and experts, to wend our way through the obstacles that litter our world’s new and treacherous path.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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