At the Passover Seder, we tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Except, we don’t really tell the “story.” Most of what we read in the Haggadah during the Seder is about how the ancient rabbis celebrated the Seder and interpreted various laws.
For kids — and many adults — it can feel a little boring. Until we get to the ten plagues.
This is a highlight not only because it is a piece of the story, but because it’s interactive. And we get to do something that’s otherwise considered off limits: we get to play with our food.
As we recite each of the ten plagues, we dip our pinky finger into our cup of wine and make a small dot on the side of our plate.
You can see why this is fun: at what other time is it appropriate to stick your finger into your wine glass and dot your plate with wine?
That is not one of the four questions, although it certainly makes the Seder night different from the others.
But in the fun of dipping our finger in wine, we miss the opportunity to ask two deeper questions.
First, why the need for plagues in the first place?
Second, doesn’t it seem a little out of taste to gleefully recount the plagues that killed others while our ancestors were spared? It seems to breed bad karma.
Why the Need for the Plagues?
The question is: If God is so powerful, why did not just take the Jews out of Egypt through some divine natural event? Why the need to inflict the plagues on the Egyptians to convince Pharaoh to let his people go?
(You might imagine the rebellious/wicked son asking these questions.)
The answer is that the plagues were a message, but Pharaoh wasn’t the target audience. The target audience was the Jews.
Even as slaves, the Jews were assimilated into the culture. They had lost all faith in God. If god had just created a natural event that led to the Jews leaving Egypt, they would have attributed their freedom to natural events, not an act of God.
As they saw the Egyptians suffer the effects of the plagues while they were spared, they realized there was a larger force at work. This wasn’t just coincidence.
This gave the Jews a foundation of trust that they would need to even leave Egypt in the first place. It opened a pathway for them to trust Moses as God’s messenger and leave Egypt — a place where they felt the comforts of home, even as they toiled in slavery.
Later on, when the people had moments of doubt and fear, Moses reminded them of the plagues and all God did to spare them. Those reminders helped them stay the course. They realized they had no reason to fear and every reason to trust.
Why It’s Not Bad Karma to Celebrate the Plagues
This takes us into the answer to the second question.
In your personal journey, you are likely to have moments where it feels things aren’t going well. You might question past decisions or future actions. The common tendency in these situations to to engage in catastrophic thinking, the thinking that things will “never” work out or that they “always” go wrong for you.
When you find yourself getting wrapped up in fear and worry, that’s the time to remember all the times that things did work out in your favor.
This is why we make the recounting of the plagues so interactive and fun. It’s not to take pleasure in the suffering of others but to really integrate this piece into our nervous system.
When the tendency is to doubt, we want to recall that we have every reason to trust.