The Haggadah lists “Elleh eser makkot”, “These are the Ten Plagues”, but the plagues did not stop at ten.
Jewish and world history are full of other terrible experiences – ten times ten and more besides – and unlike the list in the Haggadah they did not merely befall the ancient Egyptians.
Jews as Jews suffered constant violence and villainy, unceasing degradation and destruction, persistent persecution and pogroms, continual external and internal problems. Humanity – including the Jews – was regularly engulfed by disasters, demons and demagogues. Can you imagine what depressing responses I always received over the years, when I asked classes of pupils to nominate the ten plagues of the modern world?
There are two major categories of evil occurrences: “natural” events, called in English “acts of God”, and events which are eruptions of moral evil. The two categories are intertwined. The first group includes earthquakes and illness, and though we tend to blame them on God they have a moral dimension – not just the question of how and why God is involved, but whether man could have done more to improve the world and eliminate or at least diminish the external events.
Though the beginning of the Biblical Book of Job sees the Adversary going about causing mischief, the human mind feels affronted at the thought that God could apparently condone such undeserved suffering. Whatever the evil we are talking about, in the end it has to trace back to the Creator.
Why did God not make a perfect world that has no defects? Why does God not step in and control the Creation before people get hurt? Why does God not frustrate the designs of the human beings who target their fellow creatures?
It’s the oldest and hardest question of all; no-one has found the final answer.
One approach is to say that God has no obligation to create a perfect universe, but in creating man He has provided a means of mending the torn fabric.
A second approach is to say that history has to take the long view, and in the end things will gradually improve. Possibly some of the worst curses have already gone or reduced, though the global evils of the past century – especially the Holocaust, which did not just happen but was deliberately unleashed by man’s malignity – tend to challenge this assertion.
Perhaps one can say that to do good is harder than to do evil. !t is not that the Christian idea of inherited sinfulness is necessarily valid, but that for man to slide into evil-doing is easier than to choose the path of righteousness.
Rav Soloveitchik is adamant that one cannot blithely intellectualise the issue by looking for a theory that explains the events: none of this relieves the hurt of real human beings torn apart by real pain. But a range of modern Jewish thinkers joins him in distinguishing between explanations and responses. We might not (yet) have found the explanation for evil, but we have a responsibility to respond and to try to handle the suffering.
In the Haggadah we are told that the plagues arrive in every generation, but the Holy One Blessed be He, “matzileinu miyyadam”, “delivers us from their power”. We would like to feel that God stretches out His hand and scoops us out of the inferno; that after all is what the Torah assures us saved our forefathers from Egypt. But if that is not what always happens, there is some comfort in the thought that what God does is to allow us to rise above the suffering, robbing the evil of its power and giving us the moral victory.
LOOKING FOR CHAMETZ.
There are two ways of looking at the subject of chametz. The literal halachic rule says that not even the slightest trace of chametz must be seen or found in a Jewish home on Pesach, so the house has to be thoroughly cleaned and the chametz disposed of. There is a safety clause in case there still is chametz which one has not seen, found and disposed of; in this case we make a declaration that any such chametz is nullified and deemed to be the dust of the earth.
There is also a metaphorical dimension to the law of chametz. It says: don’t allow in your house or anywhere in your life anything that is questionable. If you know or even suspect it is there, don’t wait to remove it. Don’t be like the theologian who said, “God, make me good – but not yet!”
What chametz symbolises in this spiritual process is arrogance, puffed-up conceit represented by the fact that chametz is a form of leaven that makes the substance rise. If you think too much of yourself, prick your own pomposity.
THE INVISIBLE SEDER GUEST
Pesach has a remarkable fascination. It holds on to us with tremendous tenacity. No matter where we are, we will not rest until we have a Seder to go to.
“Jews who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers”, said Heine, “are stirred in their inmost parts when the old familiar Passover sounds chance to fall upon their ears.”
The statistics are impressive. More than four Jews in every five attend a Seder. They are all there, wise sons and wicked sons, simple sons and sons that know not how to ask: even the scoffers, the sinners, the cynics, and those (as Heine says) “who long have drifted from the faith of their fathers”.
All know they are taking part in something moving and meaningful; as Rav Kook put it, “a great and mighty Divine poem, a poem of confident trust and love (with) a unique musical quality.”
Who is the most exciting guest of all? Strangely, the one whose face you cannot see at all.
We all have an invisible Pesach guest. We pour him a cup of wine. We open the door to let him in. He enters with the rush of wind from the open door, and we believe we see the wine in his cup diminish, if ever so slightly.
Popular theory suggests this invisible guest is Elijah the prophet, unseen guardian of the people of Israel, whose presence attests to this being “leil shimmurim”, the night of Divine watchfulness. But Elijah is not the only unseen guest. It is not Pesach without a whole series of “virtual” guests:
* There is the Holocaust victim whose presence we sense at Seder. A home without Pesach stabs him with a new unbearable pain. Our neglect can (God forbid) give Hitler the last laugh. The price for escaping the fate of martyrdom is to make the k’doshim feel at home at our Seder table, being Jewish for them as well as for ourselves.
* There is the fifth son, the one who is not even mentioned in the Haggadah. The wise son, the wicked, the simple, the inarticulate – no matter how far each is from the ideal, at least they are there at Seder. But the fifth son has not even come. Maybe he is going through a phase of rebellion; maybe he simply does not know what Pesach is. He must be there in our mind’s eye; we miss him and love him despite everything.
* There is the spirit of Pesach past. At Seder, to borrow Israel Zangwill’s words, “dead ancestors that would not be shaken off” live and move within us. Whatever our generation has achieved was possible only because of foundations laid by the past. We share Pesach with them in thankfulness and joy.
* There is the spirit of Pesach to come, the projection of generations yet unborn. If we observe Pesach today, we can be certain they will have the opportunity of being Jewish. Otherwise there will be nothing left to hand down to them.
Years ago, I addressed an elderly audience in the East End of London. My subject was my work amongst Jewish youth. At question time, one disarmingly ungrammatical comment was made by an old man whose words I have never forgotten. “If we won’t have no children,” he said, “we won’t have no future!”
“If we won’t have no children”… the words were probably meant in a spiritual sense. If our children and grandchildren do not receive intact a living Jewish tradition, it won’t be only the fifth son who will not be at Seder, but the fourth too, and the third, the second and even the first – and Judaism will wither and die.
Many are the unseen guests who join us at Seder, crystallising now into this identity, now into that.
One above all others must know he is welcome. Wherever people have worked for peace, they have been certain of his presence. Wherever people have agonised at inhumanity and been stirred to righteousness and justice, there he has been with them. Wherever people have been moved by moral courage and persevered after truth, they have known he was with them.
Seder, with its theme of freedom and human dignity, evokes his presence. Recognise he is there, and the world at large may feel a sense of a new tomorrow. Give him his due place in the assembly of unseen guests, and may blessing be with you on Pesach and always!
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. Now retired and lives in Jerusalem.