With its emphasis on storytelling and recounting the narrative of the exodus, Passover is a holiday that invites recollection. But doing so, say local rabbis, needn’t prevent finding modern applications to the ancient story.
The Ten Plagues befell the Egyptians, of course, but all of today’s society is also experiencing paramount misfortunes, said Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, executive director at the Aleph Institute-Northeast Region. “A day doesn’t go by, whether it’s drugs or other ills of society, and we are affected by it. We live in a troubled society. There are serious medical, emotional issues, in every walk of life.”
Rabbi Levi Langer, who as rosh kollel and dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center heads a space immediately adjacent to the Aleph Institute in Squirrel Hill, said that the takeaway of the plagues is “to stay focused on our purpose in life, so that God doesn’t have to send us reminders.”
“These days, we’re pounded incessantly by digital and other intrusions, and it’s so difficult to retain the awareness that our energies have to be directed to living a meaningful life,” he explained. “Each of us has got God-given talents, and these are meant to be used productively.”
Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Bisno agreed.
“The mandate for us in the Passover story is to see ourselves in the narrative as if we went out of Egypt and to tell the story to our children, it’s to recognize that in every generation we have the responsibility to liberate ourselves from what enslaves us, from what constrains us, from realizing our best selves and the world in its ideal,” said Bisno, the congregation’s senior rabbi.
“The plagues that we experience today are largely of our own making; they include the way in which we have organized our society, our culture and our politics,” he continued. “Some of these plagues can be seen in the way we speak of our rights rather than focusing on our responsibilities, the way in which we cling to our privilege and fail to recognize the experience of others.”
Such inability to empathize is contrary to the Passover story, explained Rabbi Ron Symons, senior director of Jewish Life at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. “We recite the Ten Plagues at the heart of the seder, and as we witness our victory we lessen our joy by remembering their defeat by dipping our finger in the cup of wine.”
Added Symons, “From my perspective the greatest lesson that the plagues bring us is the lesson of compassion for people who are on the other side of the issue.”
Too often, we fail to see others, even those immediately before us, echoed Bisno. “I would suggest that the political climate that we find ourselves in is the result of the plague of arrogance and closed mindedness and a lack of empathy and respect for others. This creates a situation in which we are more concerned about what any one of us stands to lose as opposed to working to create a society where everyone can do better, where everyone can enjoy the same degrees of respect and dignity and safety.”
Symons bemoaned “a world where civil discourse has lost its place in our community.”
“Perhaps we have to learn the lesson of dipping our fingers in the wine to remember that there is humanity on every side of every conflict,” he said.
A similar sentiment can be found in the Passover resources offered this year by American Jewish World Service: “As we read the Ten Plagues, we spill drops of wine from our cups, mourning the suffering the Egyptians endured so that we could be free. This year, as these drops spread across our plates, let us turn our hearts toward the millions of people around the world suffering today’s plagues of hatred, prejudice, baseless violence and war.”
Bisno added some more modern plagues to the list.
“As I look around,” he said, “the plagues that come immediately to mind are being highlighted by the conversations we are having around guns and the issues the #MeToo movement has called to our attention, and the ways in which our government is failing us because of the corrupting effect of money and special interests.
“Passover,” he added, “comes to teach that it is up to each of us to be part of liberating ourselves from … the modern day Egypt and plagues we live with.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.