At our family seder, my wife directs a creative production of the 10 plagues, including props, that would’ve impressed Cecil B. DeMille. For example, she provides us all with red masks to represent the plague of blood and tiny plastic bugs, reminiscent of lice, which my children insert into my kiddush cup when I’m not looking. It’s amazing that I fall for this every year, but enough about me.
We implemented this family tradition when the kids were little, to keep them engaged until it was time to eat. Yet, while it’s clever and fun and it remains a part of our Seder routine even though the kids are grown now, I’ve always felt that the revelry of the moment undermines, to a great degree, the gravitas of the story. When we’re throwing small rubber frogs across the table at each other or donning dime-store sunglasses to commemorate the plague of darkness, I’m not really thinking about the plagues in terms of their human cost.
What must it feel like to want a sip of water and draw nothing but pail after pail of coppery-red blood from the family well? To barely be able to move for the slimy frogs covering every inch of the land? To not be able to sleep for the agony of the lice; to run in fear from stampeding beasts; to gag at the putrid smell of rotting animals; to gasp at the pain of oozing wounds; to be driven mad by the unremitting thump, thump, thump of hail against the roof; to weep at the pangs of hunger that seize the belly as you watch an endless cloud of locusts devour your crops; or to stumble through the horror of real darkness, in which every pinprick of light has been extinguished from the world? Nor do I stop to consider what it must have felt like to endure all this misery, only to arrive at the most awful of days; the unimaginable morning on which all of the first born of Egypt lay lifeless in their beds.
And as I studied Parashat Va’era, where the story of the first seven plagues is related, it occurred to me that as much as the Torah goes into great detail about what the plagues consisted of, how they were meted out and their after-effects, not a word is devoted to how the Jews felt about the suffering of the Egyptians during the onslaught.
I suppose it’s easy to say that the Egyptians had it coming and deserved no pity or quarter from their downtrodden Jewish slaves. The Egyptians were the people, after all, that invented antisemitism and institutionalized it into forms of physical persecution and religious oppression; the starting point of a razor-sharp line that extends through history, uninterrupted, to this day.
Still, I picture myself in an imaginary scene from long ago: an Egyptian boy, who looks like one of my sons, stretches his hand in my direction and chokes out the words, “help me.” Could I ignore the plea of a child, irrespective of how cruel his father may be? Would I be justified in treating all Egyptians, even children, as deserving only my contempt?
Some commentators offer justifications for the collective punishment of all Egyptians, given that the civilization was rotten at its core. Yet, is this really the Jewish way? Since when do Jews hold innocent individuals accountable for the crimes that others commit? And, even if one is persuaded that an irredeemably evil society must be cleansed, the irony is not lost on me that stigmatizing an entire race is exactly how the Egyptians got themselves into trouble in the first place.
Elie Wiesel, in a book entitled One Generation After, published on the 25th anniversary of his liberation from Auschwitz, writes a letter to the “new left” in Germany. In it, he excoriates German leftists for their anti-Israel and anti-Semitic words and deeds. He admonishes them that if they revive and embrace the murderous legacy of their fathers, they’ll become “heartless creatures without memory.” Yet, Wiesel, is unwilling to respond in kind to their hatred. He writes: “Do I believe in collective guilt? Of course not… you are not responsible for the crimes of your fathers… even if you perpetuate the evil spread by your fathers, I shall not hate you. I shall denounce, unmask, and fight you with all my power. But your hate will not contaminate me. No I shall never hate you. Not for yesterday and not even for today. It is something else: for yesterday, you have my pity; for today, my contempt.”
And Wiesel tells a story. A just man comes to Sodom, determined to save the population from sin and punishment. He walks the streets and markets, preaching against greed and theft, falsehood and indifference. In the beginning, people listen because his outbursts entertain them. Eventually, they ignore him. Seemingly, he is a failure but every day he comes to the town square and repeats his jeremiad. One day, a child approaches him and says: “Stranger, you expend yourself body and soul but no one listens. Can’t you see it’s hopeless? You must be crazy!” The just man replies, “In the beginning I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I shout today, it is to prevent man from changing me.”
And, circling back to Parashat Va’era with the image of Wiesel’s lonely naysayer in mind, I wonder: why didn’t Moshe question God as to the necessity of collective punishment, if for no other reason than to stay in touch with his humanity? Are we to take from the narrative that obedience to God, even in the face of what we believe to be injustice, is the greatest virtue of all?
Certainly it’s hard to imagine challenging a direct order from God, inasmuch as it implies we know better than Him, that we are entitled to judge Him. And, we’ve seen this before; in the case of Avraham who, unquestioningly, places a knife to his son’s throat on God’s command, and is stayed from the kill only at the final moment by the words of an angel. And, yet, how I wish Moshe had shouted against the injustice of the sentence he was being told to execute. How I wish that God’s angel had, once again, been a deliverer rather than the gruesome harbinger of death.
And it’s this unsettling conflict of emotions that informs my parsha poem for Parashat Va’era; that is, to hate the evil that men do, but hate no man. The poem is entitled The Gates of Heaven.
The Gates of Heaven
There’s a woman who stands in front of the building
where I work. She begs for money in a torn coat
and shoes that do not match. I think she is crazy.
Once, I dropped a dollar into her cup and she wished me
“Merry Christmas,” though it was the middle of July.
Another time, she went on and on about Jesus,
preaching with such fervor, that I stopped to listen.
Aware of an audience, she looked at me and said,
“For the Jews there shall be no salvation, you cannot
buy your way into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
I did not put anything into her cup that day.
After an earthquake in Iran, I sent money to a relief agency,
because I saw a picture of a 9-year-old boy crying, his family
buried beneath the rubble. Iran, whose leaders point rockets
at Tel Aviv, who believe in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy,
the old canard. I know they are dangerously crazy.
But the little boy is alone and he looks like one of my sons.
Israeli intelligence has found videos that teach suicide bombers
the best way to kill Jews. And, because so many lose their nerve,
the prospective terrorists are told that, at the instant of death,
the gates of heaven open wide in their honor. In one attack,
a Jewish girl was killed. And, yet, her parents—perhaps they are
crazy—donated the child’s organs to whomever was next on the list.
So, now, Jameel sees the world through Jewish eyes and, in Hana’s
chest, a strong Jewish heart will beat for the next 70 or 80 years.
Sometimes, I almost believe in the gates of heaven. Sometimes,
I can almost believe anything.