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A Pacifist Interprets the Midnight PlagueEgyptology and the "gods"The Little Finger and the Itchy LiceGames of the Ten PlaguesThe Ecology of PlaguesRecount the Plagues"Let My People Go"Black MosesA Debate — Should We Feel Joy at the Downfall of Our Enemies? — On the One Hand: The Joys of Justice — On The Other Hand: Restraints on Revenge Bruria and the HoodlumsReflections on VengeanceSo Many PlaguesWanted: Pharaoh's Heart

A Pacifist Interprets the Midnight Plague
Rabbi Aaron Samuel Tamares
(Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi, early Zionist and pacifist, 1869-1931)
     “For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night” (Ex. 12:12) – “I and not an intermediary.” Now obviously the Holy One, blessed be He, could have given the children of Israel the power to avenge themselves upon the Egyptians, but He did not want to sanction the use of their fists for self-defense even at that time. At that moment they might merely have defended themselves against evil-doers, but in the end defenders become aggressors.
     “It came to pass at midnight” (Ex. 12:29). The Holy One, blessed be He, took great pains to remove Israel completely from any participation in the vengeance upon the evil-doers, to such an extent that they were not permitted even to see the events. For that reason midnight, the darkest hour, was designated as the time for the deeds of vengeance, and the children of Israel were warned not to step outside their houses at that hour.
     “... None of you shall go out of the door of their house until the morning ... that there not be in your midst the plague of the destroyer” (Ex. 12:22-23). The language itself is very precise. Your abstention from any participation in the vengeance upon Egypt will prevent the plague of vengeance from stirring the power of the destroyer which is in you yourselves.
Egyptology and the “gods”.  top

Egyptology and the "gods"

"I will punish all the gods of Egypt, I am the Lord." (Ex. 12:12)
     By attacking the gods of Egypt and disrupting the cosmic order established on earth by the god Ra, the ten plagues delegitimized Pharaoh, who claimed to be the divine king bearing the name “Son of Ra.” Pharaoh’s query – “Who is the Lord, that I should heed his voice” (Ex. 5:2) – is answered pointedly by the “hand of God,” an idiom meaning in ancient Egyptian, “a plague”.
     Many of the plagues strike at the domains particular to Egyptian deities. One Rabbinic midrash exemplifies this idea: “Why did the first plague turn the Nile into blood? For Pharaoh and the Egyptians worshipped the Nile. So God said: Go and strike their god until he bleeds” (Tanchuma, Shmot Rabbah 9). Hapi was the Egyptian god of the Nile. The second plague struck at Heket the god who took the shape of a frog. The fifth plague, cattle disease, attacked the gods Hathor (cow) and Apis (bull). The ninth plague, darkness, triumphed over the sun god Ra. Finally, the tenth showed the vulnerability of Pharaoh himself, the son of the Sun god. The Torah can well pun on the name of Egypt’s supreme god “Ra” and call him “ra’a,” the source of evil (Ex. 10:10).  top

The Little Finger and the Itchy Lice

THE FINGER USED to remove the wine recalls the metaphor used by Pharaoh’s magicians who could not rid themselves of the plague of lice. Unable to alleviate the third plague with all their incantations, they acknowledged:
     “This must be the Finger of God” (Ex 8:15).  top

Games of the Ten Plagues

     Prepare cards with the name or picture of one of the ten plagues. Let ten participants at the seder choose a card out of a hat and present a pantomime of the plague while the others try to guess the name of the plague. (Try using its Hebrew name). You may let the children do the pantomime and the adults guess.
     2. “The Yukkiest Plague”
     Divide the children into three groups. Each group will be given as a theme either blood, frogs, or wild animals (the first, second, and fourth plague). They have five to ten minutes to prepare a short play. The adults may judge and award an Oscar (or better a “Moses”) for the most vivid, original, and devastating presentation.

The Ecology of Plagues

R. YEHUDA GALEVI, the 12th C. Spanish physician and poet, explained the division of plagues into twos:
     Two plagues from the water (blood and frogs from the Nile);
     Two plagues from the earth (lice and wild animals);
     Two plagues from air-carried infections (plague and boils);
     Two plagues from air-carried damages (hailstorms and locusts);
     Two plagues from supernatural acts (darkness caused by an eclipse and the plague of the first born).  top

Recount the Plagues

Recount the plagues that have struck this year and for each remove a drop of wine from one’s cup of joy. Some families recount ecological plagues at this point.  top

"Let My People Go"

An African-American Spiritual
When Israel was in Egypt’s land,
“Let My people go” (Ex. 5:1).
Oppressed so hard they could not stand,
“Let My people go.”
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: “Let My people go.”
Thus said the Lord, bold Moses said,
“Let My people go.”
If not, I'll smite your first-born dead,
“Let My people go.”
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: “Let My people go.”
No more shall they in bondage toil,
“Let My people go. ”
Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil,
“Let My people go.”
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land,
Tell old Pharaoh: “Let my people go.”  

"Black Moses"

HARRIET TUBMANescaped in 1849 from her plantation in Maryland with the help of the “Underground Railroad.” Soon she became a major “conductor” bringing more than 300 slaves to freedom. Despite the high price on her head, her faith in God gave her the courage to persist and earn the nickname “Moses of her people.”    top

Should We Feel Joy at the
Downfall of Our Enemies?


     1. The spilling of the sixteen drops has been understood traditionally in opposite ways. Either it signifies sympathy for the enemy Egyptians who suffered as a result of the painful process of liberating the Jews from Egyptian tyranny; or it reaffirms the righteous vengeance of God’s sword exercising judgment against a relentless, cruel and stubborn oppressor.
     2. We have arrayed contrasting views: on the right, the joys of just punishment and on the left, the need for restraint on vengeful feelings. You may wish to read responsively the contrasting speeches of Shylock (5) and Yitzchak Rabin (5).
     3. Discuss to what extent these statements reflect your feelings about Arab terrorists, contemporary Egyptians, Nazis, or criminals in general.


On the One Hand:
The Joys of Justice

1. “When the wicked perish,
There are shouts of joy!”

(Proverbs 11:10)

2. The Song of the Red Sea
      “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea ... Then Moshe and Israel sang to the Lord: ... Your right hand, Lord, shatters the Foe.
      The Foe said: ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil. My desire shall have its fill of them. I will bare my sword;’ ...
      But You, God, made your wind blow, the sea covered them.” (Ex. 14:31; 15:1,9-10)

3. President Abraham Lincoln
      “If every drop of blood drawn by the lash must be paid by one drawn by the sword, still must it be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’” (Psalm. 19; Second Inaugural Address, 1865)

Rabbi Jacob Halevi Moulin (15th C., Germany, an era of pogroms and expulsions)
      “The sixteen drops refer to the sixteen facets of God’s avenging sword.”

4. Rabbi Shalom from Noitch
      On the seventh day of Pesach (the anniversary of the crossing of the Red Sea), one should be sure to add the phrase “the day of our joy” (simchatenu) to the Kiddush, for the Egyptians were drowned in the sea.

5. Shylock
“My Revenge! He hath disgraced me, and hind’red me half a million;
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation,
thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies –
and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
fed with the same food,
hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases,
healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us,
shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest,
we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, What should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge!
The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
(William Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice”, 1597)

  On the Other Hand:
Restraints on Revenge

1. “If your enemy falls,
Do not celebrate.
If he trips,
Let not your heart rejoice.”

(Proverbs 24:17)   

2. Rabbi Yochanan
      “God is not happy at the downfall of the wicked. ... When the angels tried to sing songs of praise to God at the Red Sea, God silenced them: ‘My handiwork, my human creatures, are drowning in the sea and you want to sing a song of praise?’(T.B. Megillah 10b)

3. Don Isaac Abrabanel
(refugee of the Expulsion from Spain, 1492)
      “By spilling a drop of wine, from the Pesach cup for each plague, we acknowledge that our own joy is lessened and incomplete. For our redemption had to come by means of the punishment of other human beings. Even though these are just punishments for evil acts, it says ‘Do not rejoice at the fall of your enemy.’(Proverbs 24:17)

4. Rabbi Simcha Cohen from Divinsk (Lithuanian Talmudist)
      “The Torah never mentions ‘joy’ in relation to the holiday of Pesach as it does for Shavuot and Sukkot. On Pesach – unlike the other pilgrimage holidays – we do not recite all the Psalms of Hallel (except the first day) because as Shmuel quotes from Proverbs: In the downfall of your enemy, do not rejoice. We celebrate the Exodus from Egypt, not the downfall of the Egyptians.

5. Chief of Staff, General Yitzhak Rabin,
Six Day War, June 1967

(later Prime Minister of the State of Israel –
1974-1975, 1992-1995)

      “War is harsh and cruel, filled with blood and tears. While the joy of victory seized the whole people, among the community of fighters themselves there is a strange phenomenon: they cannot celebrate whole-heartedly. There is a large measure of sadness, of shock, mixed into their festivities. Some fighters cannot celebrate at all. The frontline soldiers saw with their own eyes – not only the glory of victory, but also its price – their fellow fighters fell at their sides in pools of blood. I know that the price paid by the enemy also touched a deep place in the hearts of many. Perhaps the Jewish people has never been educated and never become accustomed to the joy of the conqueror. Therefore, our victory is received with mixed feelings.”   top

Bruria and the Hoodlums
     A gang of hoodlums lived in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood and they used to torment him endlessly. Rabbi Meir prayed for their death. His wife Bruria said to him: “How did you reach such a decision?” He replied: “The Bible says, ‘Let sins be obliterated from the earth.’ “ (Psalms 104:35) She answered: “Is it written ‘sinners?’ The verse says ‘sins.' Look further to the end of the verse: ‘….And the wicked will be no more.’ (Psalms 104:35) Since all sins will be obliterated, then of course ‘the wicked will be no more.’ Therefore, pray that these hoodlums repent and then they will not be ‘wicked’ anymore.”
     Rabbi Meir prayed for them and they indeed mended their ways.
(2nd C. Eretz Yisrael, Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 10a) 

Reflections on Vengeance

     “You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against your people. Rather you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.”  (Leviticus 19:18-19)
     “Whoever takes vengeance destroys his own house.” (R. Papa, T.B. Sanhedrin 102 b)
     “Don’t say, since I have been humiliated; let my neighbor be humiliated also. Know! It is the image of God, you would be humiliating in your neighbor.” (Ben Azzai, Tanhima Gen. R. 24:7)
     “This shall be our revenge! We shall revive what they kill, and raise what they topple...This is the banner of our vengeance and its name is Jerusalem.” (Peretz Smolenskin, Zionist, 1882)  top

So Many Plagues?

SINCE GOD could have removed Israel from Egypt in one swift act of liberation, what was the point of prolonging the process – ten plagues and then trapping the Egyptians in the Red Sea?
     God answers this query in the Torah. “I could have stretched forth My hand and stricken you (Pharaoh) and your people ... and you would have been effaced from the earth. Nevertheless, I have spared you for this purpose.” (Ex. 9:15-16) “I will multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt ... and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” (Ex. 7:3,5) God’s goal is not merely the physical liberation of slaves, but the spiritual liberation of Pharaoh from his illusions of total power. To know deep down that Egypt has no right to enslave others means to dispel the religious foundation of Pharaoh’s idolatrous self-deification. God’s battle for recognition in the eyes of ancient Egyptian civilization is achievable only by a long series of blows to its self-esteem that gradually chip away at their self-evident preeminence as one of the longest lasting empires in human history.  top

Wanted: Pharaoh's Heart

SEFORNO (Italian Renaissance, 16th C.) explains that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he wouldn’t submit simply out of a pragmatic desire to end the pain of the plagues. The plagues were a call to a “change of heart,” not only of policy. God was anxious to accept true repentance.