How Passover Whitewashes Exodus
The table was magnificent. Fine linens, exquisite dinnerware, antique candlesticks, ornate ritual objects. It was my first Passover, the Jewish celebration of the Israelites’ flight from enslavement in Egypt to the Promised Land, and my heart was pounding. It was also my first major event with my girlfriend’s family, and I was afraid of doing or saying something spectacularly offensive. “Turn to page one,” my girlfriend’s father commanded. I picked up the book in front of me. It was titled Passover Haggadah. I turned to the first page: page 83. Wha? “Where’s the first page?” I whispered to my girlfriend. “On the last page,” she whispered back. The last page? The ceremony that followed was so confusing that I felt like a participant in the impromptu script reading of an experimental theater troupe. We skipped many of the Haggadah’s pages altogether, which added to the disjointed feeling. I managed to get through it without embarrassing myself, but I’m not sure how.
By the time my girlfriend’s family and I shared our third Passover, I was connubially, if not blissfully, bound to it. I appreciated that there was poetry in much of the Haggadah, but I could never get used to its fractured nature. David Arnow writes in My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, that the Seder is what would have resulted if “Pablo Picasso had painted the saga of Exodus.” Lawrence Kushner, former Rabbi-in-Residence at Hebrew Union College describes it as “a feature-length riddle…a centuries-long hodgepodge,” and asks “how on earth can one make a coherent and linear story out of such a haphazard mess?”
As my Seder tally grew, however, my discomfort metastasized. I started to notice that scattered among the Haggadah’s estimable passages were some that were considerably less so. And they bothered me more with each recitation.
One such section, entitled “The Four Sons,” profiles children (boys actually, girls aren’t included in this exercise) as either wise, rebellious, simple or clueless, depending upon how they inquire about the Seder ceremony. A boy is considered wise if he asks “What is the meaning of the laws, regulations and ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?” As the Haggadah instructs, “to him you shall explain all the laws of Passover even to the last detail.” However, if he asks, “What does this service mean to you?” he is to be excoriated as “rebellious,” or in many Haggadahs, “wicked.” “By using the expression ‘to you,’ it is evident that this service has no significance for him. He has thus excluded himself from his people and denied God.” He is to be given the “caustic answer” that “it is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt. ‘For me,’ not for him, for had he been there in Egypt, he would not have deserved to be liberated.”
I wondered what could justify such a heartless passage, especially since the rebellious son asks essentially the same question as the wise one, even using the offending word “you.” The only way a kid could be considered “wise” instead of “rebellious,” it seemed, was to use big words like “ordinances.”
I discovered more dark phrases in those sections of the Haggadah that we skipped every year, whose implied “keep out” signs dared me to delve. One passage reads, “Praised be thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who makest a distinction between the sacred and the secular, between light and darkness, between Israel and the heathen.” In my father-in-law’s Haggadah, the one he used to lead the service, there is an underlined “NO” scribbled next to this verse. He redacted other whole sections with big X’s.
One redeeming passage involves dipping out a spoonful of wine for each of the plagues imposed by God upon the Egyptians. The reason given for this is that “Wine makes glad the heart of man. But how can we fully rejoice as we celebrate Israel’s freedom when we know that our redemption involved the suffering of the Egyptians. [This] symbol of gladness is diminished by the wine we spill to express sorrow for the Egyptians.” A few pages later, however, in another of my father-in-law’s quarantined parts, the Haggadah implores God to “Pour out thy wrath upon the heathen nations that do not acknowledge Thee and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Thy name….Pour out upon them Thine indignation, and let thy fury overtake them. Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the heavens of the Lord.” It is to the credit of my father-in-law that he never included this passage, but I was always unnerved by the ignored contradiction.
Another segment requires reciting a list of God’s magnanimous gestures toward the ancient Hebrews. Each deed is followed by the collective chant of “dayyenu,” which means “it would have been enough.” This is how it goes:
Had God freed us from the Egyptians,
And not wrought judgment upon them,
Had he wrought judgment upon the Egyptians,
And not destroyed their gods,
Had He destroyed their gods.
And not smitten their firstborn,
Had He smitten their firstborn,
And not given us their treasure
Had He given us their treasure,
And not divided the Red Sea for us…
The list goes on, but I’ll stop here, because it’s at about this point that I always feel like yelling, “You know what would have been enough? Not making the Hebrew people suffer in slavery in the first place. Dayyenu!”
The largest ignored section in our Haggadah is a tedious collection of obsequious praises for God — things like, “Praised be Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe. Thou art God our Father, our Sovereign, our Mighty One, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Maker.” This flattery goes on in verse and song for twenty pages, and I imagined that many other families with growling stomachs also swept it under the tablecloth.
Prior to joining my wife’s family, my only knowledge of the Passover story had been imparted to me by Cecil B DeMille. So I decided to become a better, more informed participant by going straight to the source: the book of Exodus.
After I read Exodus, part of me wished that I hadn’t, that I could just ignore what I found there. But there was no way to deny it:
Passover was a lie.
Just one pass of Exodus made clear that the Haggadah’s splintered rituals, symbolic foods, and simplified retelling of the story were meant to cover up the actual Torah account. A supermarket tabloid would likely have christened it Sedergate.
The overarching message of the Passover ritual can be summed up in these words from our family Haggadah: “We were once the slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord our God brought us forth from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Had not the Holy One, praised be He, brought our fathers out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children’s children might still be enslaved to a Pharaoh in Egypt.” God is portrayed as an all-powerful deity whose “lovingkindness is everlasting” and whose only reason for heaping misery on the Egyptians was to free the Israelites from bondage. The Exodus account tracks a bit differently.
If God’s true mission for interjecting himself into the affairs of Bronze Age Egypt was to free the Hebrew slaves, then he needed only to imbue Moses’ magic staff with the power to make them vanish and reconstitute in Israel. If his intention was to freak out the Egyptians a little as well, he had any number of flashy ways to whisk the Israelites to the Promised Land: a giant magic carpet, perhaps, or a massive rainbow people mover, or a transcendental bullet train. Imagine how the Egyptians would have quaked when Yaweh thundered, “All aboard the Goshen to Canaan Express!” But instead of adopting these creative, non-psychopathic solutions, God unleashed “signs and marvels,”1 “extraordinary chastisements,”2 and “a mighty hand”3, which, as it turns out, is scriptural spin for “torture and genocide.”
And here is the smoking gun, the words uttered to Moses from the very mouth of God that proves that liberation was not his intent: “Perform before Pharaoh all the marvels that I have put within your power. I, however, will stiffen his heart so he will not let the people go.”4
One can understand why the original seder writers ommitted this uncomfortable confession. Even if Pharaoh had wanted to let the people go — and there are times in the story that he did — God would brainjack him, forcing him to change his mind. And with each supernaturally coerced reversal of Pharaoh’s decrees, God claimed justification for inflicting more “marvels” on the monarch’s subjects, bellowing at one point, “You continue to thwart My people, and do not let them go!”5 This is not the act of one whose goal is to free slaves from bondage. This is the petty, depraved abuse of helpless bystanders, both Hebrew and Egyptian, to show a two-bit dictator who has the bigger scepter. Could the all-powerful creator of the universe really be this insecure? It seems so, because he states his true intentions five more times 6, and at one time proclaims vaingloriously, “Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display these My signs among them, and that you may recount in the hearing of your sons and of your sons’ sons how I made a mockery of the Egyptians.”
And what exactly were these “signs” that God so wanted to “display”? They are the raft of horrific events commonly known as The Ten Plagues.
In the first plague God turns all water in Egypt to blood, even water found “in vessels of wood and stone.“7 This plague lasted seven days. We know it would have occurred in summer because “the flax was in bud.”8 In such hot and dry conditions a reasonably healthy human would have lived only 3-5 days without water. This should have killed every citizen of Egypt, but somehow many were spared for further torments.
To those who survived, perhaps by drinking milk from farm animals, God devised a special anti-PETA plague, a disease from which “all the livestock of the Egyptians died.”9 And to be sure that they were truly dead, God also blasted them with a fiery hail that “struck down all that were in the open, both man and beast.”10 Ironically the humans that were killed by this numinous napalm were slaves that had been left outside by “those who paid no regard to the word of the Lord.”11
The hailstorm also “struck down all the grasses of the field and all the trees of the field.”12 The Egyptians probably took small comfort that “the wheat and the emmer were not hurt, for they ripen late.”13 But God then proceeded to send a swarm of locusts that “ate up all the grasses of the field and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left.”14
God then imposed a “thick darkness”15 upon Egypt. “A darkness that can be touched.”16 “People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was.”17 Imagine the terror of being trapped in tar for three days. I wonder if parents were able to hear the muffled cries of their children through such an awful pitch. Strangely, this would have been the perfect opportunity for the Israelites to pack up and leave. One wonders why they didn’t. Perhaps God had hardened their hearts too.
There were other plagues: frogs, lice, insects, boils. But the plague that everyone knows best is Number 10, the Smiting of the First-Born. Just before committing this midnight massacre, however, God had one more important pre-flight duty to perform. He “ordered the Israelites to “borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold” and “disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the [Hebrew] people … thus they stripped the Egyptians.”18 In other words, God mentally coerced the already ravaged Egyptians into handing over all their wealth to the Israelites — just nine chapters before theft was declared a sin.
As to the fate of the first-born (homicide hadn’t been declared a sin yet either), “in the middle of the night, the Lord struck down all first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh … to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones … to the first born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle.”19 Putting aside the strange redundancy of killing cattle that had already been killed a couple of times, and the cruelty of killing the children of slaves and prisoners, one wonders just how God went about this horrible deed. Did he stride into homes and snatch children from terrified mothers and slit their throats? Did he dispatch them quickly with an “outstretched arm”? Did he break their necks? Stab them? Drown them? Burn them? Visualizing this scene with all the wailing of horrified family members is, without a doubt, too disturbing to mention in a Seder.
Small wonder the typical Haggadah offers twenty pages of sycophantic adulation. These people were desperate to avoid the wrath of a capricious, homicidal tyrant. It brought to mind the official groveling found in The Song of General Kim Jong-Il, a poem that was recited at public events by the unfortunate subjects of the deranged despot who, according to Barbara Demick in her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, sentenced people to life in the gulag for such crimes as joking about the “Dear Leader’s” height and executed people for stealing food to feed their starving families. I wondered if any phrases from our family’s Haggadah might resemble those in the poem. Here is what I found. The passages from the Haggadah are in italics:
Long live General Kim Jong-il!
May the merciful Father reign over us for ever and ever.
Our General is hailed by all and cheered throughout the land.
Praise the Lord all nations: Extoll him, all peoples.
Flower blossoms everywhere tell of his broad and warm love for us.
All things that live shall praise Thy name…Thy goodness and Thy holiness.
Blue waters of the East and West Seas sing of all he has done.
If like the sea our mouths could sing…yet would we still be unable to thank Thee, God, sufficiently.
He defends our Socialist cause full of iron will and courage.
He smote Egypt…with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
He spreads the honor of our nation throughout the world.
Then it was told among the nations: “The Lord has done great things for them.”
He’s the champion of justice.
Thy mercy is everlasting.
It is understandable that such overblown praise exists in Jewish texts like the Haggadah and the Sabbath prayer books, which are drenched with it. It’s because Jehovah, like Kim Jong il, strikes terror into his followers by behaving like a psychotic cult leader who slaughters on a whim.
Those who found themselves on the wrong side of Kim Jong il weren’t the only offenders who received punishment. Their “children, parents and siblings were also taken away, often in the middle of the night, to rid the regime of ‘tainted blood’ which carries over for three generations.” Perhaps he had researched the Bible at one time for tyranny tips because God imposes precisely the same penalty in Exodus 20:5, “visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations.”
There are many more examples in Exodus that demonstrate that the fear-soaked praise found throughout the Seder is inspired by God’s sociopathic ruling style. Here are just a few:
4:24-26 Right after charging Moses with the task of freeing his people, God flies into a rage and nearly kills him for neglecting to cut off the tip of his son’s penis. Moses is saved by the quick thinking of his wife, Zipporah who, with none of the sterilized pomp and circumcision of a modern-day bris, picks up a rock and relieves the poor child of his foreskin right in front of the whole group. God is mollified.
12:18,19 God proclaims that anyone who eats anything leavened during Passover will be thrown out of Israel.
14 Pharaoh allows the Israelites to leave Egypt, but God then “stiffens his heart,” and even though all of Egypt’s livestock are dead, Pharaoh somehow conjures up 600 horse-drawn chariots to chase the fleeing slaves. God drowns the whole army in the Red Sea.
15:26 God warns that if anyone crosses him, he’ll curse them with the same plagues that he brought upon the Egyptians.
19:12,13 If any person or animal touches God’s mountain, they will be stoned.
19:21, 33:20 If you so much as look at God, he will kill you.
21:7-11 Right after delivering the Hebrews from slavery, God outlines the proper way to sell their daughters back into it.
22:17 If God thinks you are a witch, he will kill you.
30:11-13 God extorts money from his followers by threatening to kill them.
32:7-28 For the crime of sculpting a golden calf, God orders 3000 Israelites stabbed to death.
Once I had discovered these truths about the Exodus story, I began to wonder if a more forthright version of the Haggadah existed. A little searching turned up a number of alternatives. Among them were The Haggadah for Jews and Buddhists, The 30-Minute Seder, The Holistic Haggadah, The Really Fun Family Haggadah, A Poet’s Haggadah, The New Christian Jewish Passover Haggadah, The Women’s Haggadah, and The Ina Gada Haggadah. None of them, however, had what I was looking for: a clear, organized treatment of the Seder as an engaging, non-historical story with an uplifting moral.
The non-historical part was important, because in my research, I discovered that the exodus never happened.
The Torah states that 600,000 men left Egypt.20 Extrapolating that to family members indicates that millions of “fertile and prolific”21 Israelites must have crossed the Red Sea. That many people trekking for 40-years across a 40-day distance would have left a treasure trove of artifacts for archaeologists to discover. But the sands have come up empty. As Israel Finkelstein, chairman of the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University, puts it in his book The Bible Unearthed, “The Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land [of Canaan] in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the twelve tribes of Israel.” *
This made my search more difficult because, as a rule, Haggadahs don’t tend to treat the exodus story as fiction. But I eventually found a Haggadah written by an organization called Machar–The Washington Congregation for a Secular Humanistic Judaism, that had much of what I was looking for. It has since been improved upon by Eszter Hargittai, a professor at Northwestern University (www.eszter.com/Haggadah.pdf). It not only treats the liberation story as an instructional parable, it celebrates Spring, the time of year in which Passover takes place, and is more inclusive of non-Jews, ethnic and sexual minorities, and women. It organizes the confusing liturgy in a way that is easier to follow, updates “Dayyenu”, and omits “The Four Sons.”
I was afraid to ask my new family to try it, but, as it turned out, not only were they open to it, they accepted it wholeheartedly, and we have been using it for years. Since it is a Humanist Haggadah, and therefore devoid of sectarian prayers, I attempted to make the transition less jarring by including the traditional Hebrew blessings over wine and bread. I may soon revert to the original version, however, so that our Haggadah can truly live up to the nickname we have affectionately given it: The Hagodless.
Now I look forward to Passover. It is a joyous occasion. And not the least because this new Haggadah incorporates the message of peace found in Micah 4:3: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Also, the whole thing clocks in at about 32 minutes.
So if you have ever found yourself feeling uncomfortable with the Haggadah you use in your Seder, I encourage you to check around. There is bound to be one out there that suits you. And don’t be afraid to ask your family to join you. You may actually find that their hearts have not been hardened to your appeal.
Scriptural passages from the Book of Exodus quoted from “The Torah – The Five Books of Moses” published by the Jewish Publication Society
- 7:3, 10:1, 11:9, 14:4, 14:17
- 11:5, 29
*Further reading: Coogan, Michael David. The Oxford History of the Biblical World (New York: Oxford University Press) Dever, William G. Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) Ben-Tor, Amnon. The Archaeology of Ancient Israel (The Open University of Israel) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/moses-exodus.html http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/03/world/africa/03exodus.html http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2004/12/Did-The-Exodus-Really-Happen.aspx?p=3 http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/archeology-hebrew-bible.html All scripture references quoted from The Torah, The Five Books of Moses, The Jewish Publication Society