Blood, frogs, lice…
The listing of the plagues in the prescribed Seder ritual has, I fear, fallen victim to the ordinariness that familiarity almost inevitably breeds. Indeed, for several years now, a “how to keep them from falling asleep” Seder toy has been available, in which the plagues are represented by rubber thingies that are meant to engage and entertain the tots at the table. Absent, toy or not, is any sense at all of terror; we chant the plagues, sprinkling a bit of wine with the mention of each, a sweet symbolic gesture meant to indicate that we take no pleasure from the misfortunes that befell the Egyptians.
Or perhaps we don’t take the plagues all that seriously because unlike most of the bad things with which the Jewish past is so lavishly seeded, these happened to someone else. So a few drops of wine less to drink, and on to the main event. The main event is, of course, our liberation from a house of bondage. That is what renders this wonderful spring holiday a celebration of thanksgiving.
At many Seder tables, whether through one of the newer Haggadas or extemporaneously, there’s an effort to make the Seder more “relevant” by including references to the pharaohs of our own time. Until just a few years ago, the Soviet regime served as a modern pharaoh; this year, it’s a safe bet that Saddam Hussein’s name will get substantial mention. The world in general and the Jews in particular have never lacked for current incarnations of hard hearts and cruel behavior. Jewish history and Jewish holidays come to remind us of exactly that. Yosef Yersushalmi, the distinguished Jewish historian, asserts that before there was history in any formal sense, it was the holidays, the rituals, through which we learned our history. And the main lesson we seem to have absorbed is that “ b’chol dor va’dor, omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu ” — that in every generation, our enemies rise up to destroy us.
Therein lies a problem. The writer Leon Wieseltier described American Jews as “the spoiled brats of Jewish history.” Whatever else Wieseltier may mean by the term, he surely means that no generation of Jews has had it so good. The discrepancy between our own condition and the experiences of our people over time, as we have been taught those experiences, is enormous. Bad things seem to search out and assault (but not destroy) this good people. We may not remember the details, but for sure we remember the sense of it all: Ours is a people that has suffered — and suffers still.
In order to connect ourselves to the Jewish past, we have a marked tendency to inflate today’s bad things, to empty some drops from our own cup of good fortune, to deny that we have it quite as good as in fact we do. Surely that accounts for the otherwise inexplicable tendency of Jews to believe that antisemitism is bad and getting worse here in America (a tendency that long antedates Mel Gibson’s film and the explosion of anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and elsewhere). Violence and terrorism in Israel, Jewish children in France cautioned not to wear yarmulkes in public lest they be assaulted, synagogues and other Jewish institutions defaced here at home — all come to confirm that Jewish history still lives, that we are its authentic heirs, that nothing ever changes, not really.
But of course things do change. There is liberation. There is the Promised Land, as complicated as it has turned out to be, and there is the Promised Time, as delayed as it has been. And we need, it seems to me, some more direct way of taking notice of the blessings, of our own blessings — not in any triumphant sense, but emphatically.
So here is a proposal for a new ritual: We have the recitation of the Ten Plagues, resting more or less in peace. Let us insert into our tale a recitation of 10 blessings. True, we already have more than 10 that thank God for our liberation. (Think dayenu. ) I intend here for us to call attention to our own time and our own good fortune. No, I don’t mean for us to go around the table and have all the participants in the Seder tell of the best or the sweetest or the most meaningful thing that happened to them during the past year. We tend to do something like that on Thanksgiving, which is well and good. I mean to do our Passover recitation with reference to good things “out there”; just as the ancient story we recite is the story of a people, let the good things of which we take note be drawn from the public sphere.
It will be an interesting exercise, in these bleak times, to force ourselves to “accentuate the positive.” I am not worried that we will turn Pollyanish. There are entirely too many clouds to render that a serious concern. No, I want for us not only to remember the past, in all its pain and joy, in all its grandeur, and to take appropriate note of the present dangers, but also and in the same breath, as it were, to search out the good: the acts of heroism and the acts of kindness, the examples of freedom and the noble uses to which it is sometimes put. And if, along the way, there’s also a personal story that fits, that too. A spoiled brat thinks he deserves it all; a sober celebrant knows how much we have to be grateful for.
Chag sameach !
Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).