We celebrate the festival of Passover not only by simply telling the “story,” but by specifically sharing it with our children. I have always struggled with this, having difficulty finding the words to share the details of the story. More specifically, I can’t get through the last plague: the Death of the First Born.
I do not recall when I committed the list of ten plagues to memory, but it certainly was from an early age. Such was true of an upbringing in a Jewishly rich household.
In addition, my parents made a concerted effort to engage the children at the Seder (and now my children as well), ensuring the plagues were always accompanied by humorous songs about frogs in Pharaoh’s bed, not to mention toys and masks, and marshmallow crème-filled chocolates of all sorts.
As a result, I don’t think I ever fully assimilated what the ten plagues really were until my mid-20s. I of course knew the Hebrew and the English, and what a locust or hail was. I was “grossed out” by the Nile turning to blood. But I never fully understood this as a full-scale assault on the Egyptians. I never fully appreciated the suffering. And likewise, even as a firstborn myself, I never understood the gravity of the death of the firstborn.
How could I possibly discuss such wide-scale loss with my children? And worse, how can I explain that God was behind it?
There is a difference between God ushering the Israelites out of Egypt and killing the Egyptian firstborn sons. There’s even a difference between God drowning Pharaoh’s pursuing Army and killing the Egyptian firstborn sons. One action is God saving; the other action is God punishing.
On the surface, it is easy to explain that this is what Deuteronomy 26:8 meant by God taking the Israelites out of Egypt with a Mighty Hand and Outstretched Arm. The Outstretched Arm ushered us out. The Mighty Hand dealt the severe blows to the Egyptians.
But why? God felt that God needed to prove a point. Because part of the Passover story is that God killed the firstborn Egyptians sons for no other reasons than vengeance and to make it extra painful for the Pharaoh. That’s the hidden detail of the story—Pharaoh was a firstborn (that’s how he got be Pharaoh). God killed all the firstborn Egyptian sons, but God spared Pharaoh. That was the gut-wrenching punishing blow.
The simple answer that I think I have finally settled on is that God was jealous. We know that from the Torah itself (Exodus 20:5). And even though we did escape Egypt, God was not perfect, and God made (and makes) mistakes, too.
Jealousy is a common discussion with our children. “Be happy with what you have.” “Worry about you and only you.” Using jealousy as a starting point helps ground the conversation in something that makes sense to our kids. Following that with jealousy leads to mistakes allows the children to start to put the pieces together for themselves.
This doesn’t make it any easier to discuss the death and the hurt. And though it may come across as controversial to suggest that even God makes mistakes, it is far easier to teach our children that, to be “Godly,” they should learn from their mistakes and strive to correct them, rather than strive for perfection.
And the most important part? This is a conversation to have BEFORE the seder. And it is not a conversation to have during bedtime routines, right before our little ones go off to sleep, giving them nightmares. This is a conversation on the walk to the park or the playground. This is a conversation on the way home from synagogue or school. This is a conversation over dinner when there aren’t any other distractions or meetings to run off to.
But here’s the catch—your children will ask more questions…and really, that’s the point of Passover! And they may disagree, they may get upset, they may challenge you. And it’s imperative to let it all sink in—for you and for them.
You have permission to be frustrated by parts of the story, and you should give your children the same permission. We can still hurt for all those lives lost and celebrate the festival. And maybe in this generation we (and God) will learn that there are paths toward Redemption and the Promised Land, perhaps with a little less killing.