Celebration amid darkness
Understanding the meaning of the plagues that God sent upon the Egyptians
In Exodus 13:8, the Bible instructs the Hebrew people to narrate to their children the story of the slavery and liberation of their ancestors in the land of Egypt. This narrative constitutes part of a special dinner that includes multiple symbols referring to aspects of this story. That dinner, the Passover Seder, is celebrated at the beginning of the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, the day when, according to Exodus, this ritual dinner occurred for the first time.
Each generation of Jews on that night has the mission to study together with their children some aspects of the present day that can be illuminated by rereading the biblical accounts of enslavement and liberation. There is a rabbinical text that has been used for many centuries as a guide and study for this occasion, the Haggadah. As I reflected on which parts of the Exodus story I should especially discuss this year on Pesach with my family, the theme of the plagues that God sent upon the Egyptians came to mind. Probably it was the ongoing pandemic being experienced by the whole of humanity that led me to consider this.
Both in the literature of the Talmud and the Midrash, as well as in the writings of medieval and more recent exegetes, we find the testimonies of sages who strived to understand the meaning and the message of the plagues. They should not be seen merely as punishments from God to Pharaoh and his people; the sages thought the plagues must have an inherent message in and of themselves. On the other hand, the biblical text itself reveals to us that one of God’s purposes in sending the plagues was to clearly show the folly of serving false deities (Exodus 12:12).
The first of the plagues, the waters of Egypt that turned to blood, can be seen as referring to Pharaoh’s earlier command to throw all newborn Hebrew males into the Nile (Exodus 1:22). The message is clear: shed blood is impossible to erase.
The conflicts of the twentieth century and the present day allow us to discover a certain subtle relationship between them and the biblical account of the plagues. Eugène Ionesco, one of the great creators of the Theater of the Absurd, presented Rhinocéros in 1958. It recounted how the inhabitants of an entire town are transformed into rhinoceroses. He thereby alluded to the metamorphosis — used in the most Kafkaesque sense — of a society that distorts ethical values by embracing one of the most disastrous totalitarianisms. This work relates in my mind to the fourth of the plagues: the invasion of animals to the houses and public places of the Egyptians. Perhaps those animals were sent by God in order to prompt Egyptian society to recognize that their human behavior had descended to beastly levels.
La Peste of Albert Camus (1947), with all its different interpretations, makes me reflect on the multiplicity of messages that the fifth plague would have had for the biblical Egyptians, just as it has for us during the current pandemic.
The present reality also leads me to meditate on the ninth plague, darkness. Today’s armed conflicts, rife with pettiness and delusional ambitions undoubtedly plunge societies into a deep darkness in which, as happened in Egypt, “one does not see his brother.”
The Bible teaches the Jewish people to infuse themselves with a spirit of joy on the holidays (Deuteronomy 16:14). This joy must be so strong that a person who is mourning must put aside all external signs of it (b. Moed Katan 14b). But the joy to which this Deuteronomic verse points is that which is professed before God (Dt 16:11). This a joy that is the profound rejoicing of the spirit, one that is shared with family, friends, neighbors — and with God.
This joy, sadly, is scarce in our present world. However, with the arrival of the celebrations of the Jewish Pesach and the Christian Pascha, we can glimpse such joy, which illuminates and brings hope to our lives. The Church has come to understand Jesus’ Last Supper as a reenactment of the Passover story through which the Exodus sense of redemption is spread to the world. That is why both Jews and Christians share the hope that God’s intentions for the world are inevitable. We also share the commitment to strive for its achievement. Despite the currently prevailing darkness, may the lights of Pesach and Pascha continue to shine in our homes and hearts.
Published in L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO