Empathy for the Other

Beshallah | Pesah By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 7, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary | Holidays

It took God but six days to create the world; it took my mother at least twice that long to prepare for Passover. At the seder on the first night she would often doze contentedly from a mild case of exhaustion. Everything sparkled; nothing was out of place. The beauty of the table and the aromas coming from the kitchen attested to her toil and artistry. By turning ritual into a fine art, she enhanced the presence of God at our family seder.

Yet as we approached the recitation of the ten plagues, she would invariably bestir herself to protect her turf. The custom to remove a drop of wine from our cups at the mention of each plague was enacted in our household only symbolically. My father always deferred to my mother’s pride with a gracious word of praise for her handiwork. Staining the immaculate tablecloth would be tolerated begrudgingly only at dinner and then only if done by accident. Thus as we enumerated the plagues together we made no more than a pretense of dipping a forefinger into the wine and spilling a drop on the table.

The meaning of this unmannered gesture is, however, quite profound. On this evening of memory encased in ritual, we recall the series of miracles by which God subdued Pharaoh and extricated our ancestors from slavery. While each plague may have weakened his resolve, it was the devastation wrought by the death of the firstborn (“for there was no house where there was not someone dead – Exodus 12:30”) that ended all resistance. Traumatized, the nation of Egypt united to expel the Israelites overnight. The drop of spilled wine at the seder signifies a diminution of our joy. We are mindful that redemption for Israel inflicted loss of life on the Egyptians. In the spirit of Proverbs (24:17), “If your enemy falls, do not exult,” Jews temper their celebration with a dose of compassion. Each plague killed some of God’s creatures.

This ritual of self-transcendence is part of a larger matrix. It derives from a midrash based loosely on a verse in our parasha. The Israelites find themselves trapped at the Sea of Reeds. Behind them is the frightening army of an unrepentant Pharaoh; before them a large body of water. All through the night a strong east wind howls which by morning will create a passageway across the water. Till then, the Israelites are separated from the Egyptians by an impenetrable cloud, “so that the one could not come near the other all through the night (Exodus 14:20).”

Rabbi Yohanan daringly transposed this verse to the celestial realm. The angels on high sensed the imminence of Israel’s salvation and wanted to unite in song. But God did not let them assemble, that is, come near to each other. Jubilation was inappropriate to the moment. Rather, God rebuked the angels: “My creatures are about to perish in the water and you want to break out in song?” Again, victory is tinged with sadness, not at the loss of one’s kinsfolk but at the destruction of the other. No matter how merciless the Egyptians may have been, they too bear the imprint of God’s image. Rabbi Yohanan projects on to God a standard of human behavior that runs counter to our instincts. We should never perceive the other as wholly other.

The ritual of Passover gives voice to this ideal in another noteworthy way. We recite the full Hallel prayer (Psalms 113-118) only on the first two days of the holiday. During the final six days we intone only a half Hallel, that is, omitting two of the psalms as we do on every new moon festival. In contrast, on Sukkot and Hanukkah a full Hallel is recited in the synagogue for the entire length of the holiday. Liturgy marks distinctions. A prayer of thanksgiving, Hallel is both the symbol of and vehicle for expressing our joy. Out of deference for the vast amount of Egyptian suffering associated with Passover, we settle for less than a full Hallel for most of Passover. Israel’s chosenness is not to be misconstrued as devaluing the worth of other nations and human beings.

But history often dilutes our ideals because reality confounds theory. The Haggadah read at the seder table contains a chilling imprecation against a gentile world which has so often caused Jewish blood to flow like water. Directly after grace, we open the door for the long-awaited Prophet Elijah and recite four harsh verses beginning with: “Pour out Your fury on the nations who do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name, for they have devoured Jacob and desolated his home (Psalm 79:6-7).” The passage is among the latest additions to the Haggadah and surely reflects the deteriorating status of European Jewry after the First Crusade. It captures the angst and anger of a resolute minority exposed to recurring assaults by an unforgiving Christian majority. In contemporary Haggadot, we have seen fit to express our own pain and confusion with readings about the Holocaust, the greatest of Jewish calamities.

History could not be denied its say. Yet Judaism never recognized it as the sole arbiter of religious truth. Hatred for past injustices did not overwhelm the pages of the Haggadah, obliterating all other values and sentiments. Experience was not allowed to warp the ideal, and a sense of victimhood did not become the only lens through which to view the world. Passover serves to remind us that even the Egyptians were created in the image of God and deserve our empathy. God chose Abraham to be a blessing for humanity, and hence Jews will ultimately be judged by how they treat the other. Is that not why his descendants had to endure slavery before they could take possession of the land? The social ethic of the Prophets challenges the arrogance of all victors, Jewish as well as gentile.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’shallah are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.