Progressive Jews: We Are On the Side of the Plagues

PSA to my fellow progressive Jews: when you put together readings for the seder about the “contemporary 10 plagues”, listing out terrible things confronting us — racism, capitalism, misogyny, what have you — you are identifying with Phara’oh and framing God as the enemy. In the Pesach/Passover story, we are on the side of the plagues, which are necessary to break the stubborn will of evil tyrants and their defenders. The plagues are a reminder that liberation does not come bloodlessly. We are not smug or flip about the plagues — they are horrific and ugly — and we reduce our celebration a bit in recognition of that. But if we’re looking to understand today’s struggles in light of the Pesach story, we should not see racism, capitalism, misogyny, etc. as contemporary manifestations of the plagues, but as contemporary manifestations of Phara’oh. And we pray for, if necessary, plagues to come and break the regimes of Jeff Bezos, Jair Bolsenaro, Mitch McConnell, Viktor Orban, Rupert Murdoch, Benjamin Netanyahu, Stephen Miller, Elon Musk, Elliot Abrams, etc.

If we really want to get precise, we should stop referring to the Ten Makkot/מכות as the “Ten Plagues”, and refer to them, instead, as the “Ten Attacks”, or something like that. The Haggadah does not call them the ten mageiphot/מגפות, the typical Biblical term for “plague”, but the ten makkot/מכות. I suspect the confusion probably has roots in the King James Bible’s translation of מכות/makkot as “plagues” in Deuteronomy/Devarim 28:59 and 61. (I thank my friend Shoshana Michael Zucker for this observation.) The word at its core really means “hits”, “strikes”, “attacks”, or “beatings”, as in Exodus/Sh’mot 2:11, where Moshe sees an Egyptian man hitting or beating a Hebrew. In the curses of Deuteronomy 28 and in the Haggadah’s summary of the Exodus story, God strikes the people worthy of attack, those who need the pressure of an attack to be moved to change their ways — the sinning Israelites in Deuteronomy 28, the sinning Egyptians and Phara’oh in the Exodus story. In both cases, most of the mechanisms through which God goes on the attack align with crop, weather, or skin ailments often identified as “plagues”. But their import is political: God attacking/hitting/striking Phara’oh and the Egyptian people.

As my friend Rabbi Aaron Levy noted in the comments to a social media post on this topic, “The makkot were, as Malcolm X said (notoriously after JFK’s assassination), ‘the chickens coming home to roost.’ An evil society getting its just desserts.” Ezra Furman captures the spirit with which truly progressive and radical Jews — which should be to say, Jews — approach the makkot in her 2018 song, “God Lifts Up the Lowly“, on an album, Transangelic Exodus, that narrates in the language and register of Jewish liturgy and the Biblical exodus story the experiences of trans people, poor people, and all others criminalized in their existence in the dystopic regime in which we live:

“We’re searching the trunk every morning
We tore out a tracking device
And I pray for plagues to come down on this Egypt
And I dream of blood, fire and lice.
I wake with my coat for a blanket
My angel’s been up for an hour
And I’ve looked deep into this frail human body
And I know that I carry a power.
We’ll never make it on the main streetsThey’ll force us back into the alley waysAnd we’re re-arranging furnitureIn a burning house.
But I know God lifts up the lowlyI know God lifts up the lowly.”
To the extent that we’re uncomfortable wishing violence upon the power structure in the Mitzrayim in which we live, I invite us to consider the ways in which we have been co-opted by or willingly embraced this power structure, happily receiving some chimerical benefits and looking away from the masses of people, other sentient beings, the water, and other life forms whose survival is denied and threatened by the regime that rewards us. If you were trafficked for your labor or your body, if you were denied the right to a bathroom break on the job, if you were beaten by the police and had lost loved ones to their racist whims, if you were on the verge of dying of thirst as you escaped murder in your home to seek asylum and the American border goons destroyed water and food left on the way by people who were arrested on felony charges for leaving that food and water….would you be uncomfortable by a mighty God or any other force attacking the brutal regime and ending its reign of terror? Or would you dream of these attacks, celebrate them when they come, and be ready to run to freedom?
The Mishna teaches us, and the Haggadah has us declare, “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see themself as if they had left Egypt. בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם” (Mishna Pesachim 10:5). Liberation is not a fairy tale and there is no liberation without real conflict. The Haggadah speaks to us who have comfort and privilege and demands that we go deep into disentangling ourselves from it, really understanding the costs of freedom, the Divinely charged violence sometimes necessary to meet regimes of unfathomable violence and brutality, such as the one in which we live. Are we ready to renounce those who buy us off on the cheap and embrace the overwhelming bounty of true freedom?

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