My annual Passover post, updated for 2014

An antisemitic Jew I know, rather than seeing the Passover ceremony as the celebration of freedom (the world’s first and for a long time only successful slave revolt), and of justice and morality (the Ten Commandments), derides the whole ceremony as the unconscionable and immoral celebration of the genocide of the Egyptian people. What troubles him so much is the fact that, after each plague, when Pharaoh seems about to soften and let the Jews go, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, leading to the necessity of yet another plague, culminating in the death of the first born.  God, he says, is a serial killer, because he unilaterally escalated a situation to the point where thousands had to die.

Some people have tried to explain away this part of the Passover narrative by saying that it is simply dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger of the Jew’s escape from Egypt. After all, if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. No one will get spiritually or intellectually excited if Moses asks, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh answers “Sure.” That’s a narrative without much punch or heroism, and God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, unexciting. Narrative tension, according to this explanation, demands an escalating series of plagues, with the audience on tenterhooks as to whether those pesky Jewish slaves will actually be able to make a break for it.

This reasoning is silly. There’s a much more profound purpose behind God’s approach to the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long as his power remains in place.

What Pharaoh discovered with the first nine plagues is that life can go on, at least for the ruler, despite an increase in the burdens placed upon his people. A blood-filled Nile River may, at first, have seemed appalling, but the red receded and life went on. Pharaoh still held together his government. The same held true for each subsequent plague, whether lice or boils or wild animals or frogs, or whatever: there was surely consternation at Pharaoh’s court, which led Pharaoh to think about freeing the pesky Jewish slaves, but once life returned to normal, Pharaoh’s tyrannical instincts again kicked in.  As long as Pharaoh could maintain his power base, he was okay with the incremental decimation visited upon those he ruled.

Sheltered in his lavish palace, Pharaoh might worry about the risk to him from a populace starving and frightened, but that possible risk was immediately irrelevant as long as that same populace still proved willing to fear and worship him. The people’s suffering, ultimately, was irrelevant to his power over the land and his ability to maintain that power. It was only when the price became too high to Pharaoh personally — when Pharaoh’s laborers, and money men, and soldiers, and slaves, and courtiers, and perhaps even his own family members died — that Pharaoh was convinced, even temporarily, that his own survival required that he alter his evil ways.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 3,000 years. Think, for example, of both the Nazis and the Japanese at the end of WWII. For the Nazis, it was apparent by December 1944 (the Battle of the Bulge) that the war was over. Hitler, however, was a megalomaniac in the pharaonic mold, and his high command, either from fear of Hitler’s reprisal or because its members were caught in the grip of their own insanity, would not gainsay him. Rather than surrendering, the Nazi high command was willing to see Germany country overrun and her Aryan citizens killed. Only when the death toll became too high, when  it was apparent that nothing could be salvaged from the ashes, and when the guns were aimed directly at their own heads, did the German high command surrender.

The same held true for the Japanese. Truman did not decide to drop the bomb just for the hell of it. Even the fact that it would impress the Soviets was an insufficient reason for doing so. What swayed Truman was the fact that his advisers told him (credibly as it turned out) that the Japanese Bushido culture would not allow Japan to surrender even when surrender had become the only reasonable option. Instead, the military warned Truman that, although the Americans would inevitably win the war, if Truman didn’t take drastic action, victory would take another year, and cost up to 100,000 American lives and at least that many Japanese lives (including Japanese civilians).

Truman therefore had two choices: another year of war, with the loss of 100,000 Americans and many more than 100,000 Japanese; or an immediate end to the war, with no more American casualties and at least 100,000 Japanese casualties. Put that way, the choice was a no-brainer. The outcome would be the same for the Japanese, but Truman would save the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, British, Australians and Dutch. (One of those Dutch, incidentally, was my Mom, who was on the verge of starving to death in a Japanese concentration camp.) The Japanese high command was Pharaoh. No amount of smaller plagues could stop the command from its chosen path. Only a large plague would swiftly lead to the inevitable conclusion.

But what about the innocent lives lost as a result of Pharaoh’s, the Nazi’s, and the Japanese high command’s intransigence? As the Japanese tale shows only too well, the innocents were always going to die, with the only question being whether they would die quickly or slowly. The same holds true for ordinary Germans (among whom was my dear cousin from the goyishe side of my family), whom the Nazis had long ago designated as cannon fodder to support their intensely evil regime.

The German and Japanese examples make manifest the problem with an evil regime. If you’re unlucky enough to live under that regime, whether or not you support it, you’re going to be cannon fodder. Pharaoh will let you die of plagues, and the Nazi and Japanese leadership will let you be bombed and burned — as long as they can retain their power.

I wrote the above words several years ago during Iran’s green revolution, when Iranian citizens took to the streets to rebel against their brutish, oppressive regime.  Aided in part by our own President Obama’s tight-lipped silence, the mullahs were unmoved by their own people’s suffering.  As long as the mullahs could retain power, their people’s suffering was irrelevant and, indeed, had to increased to reinforce the idea that the only return on rebellion is pain, not freedom.

Iran may be quiet now (although people are pushing at the regime more and more, not by suffering, but through joy, which is anathema to sharia’s overwrought puritanism), but we have so many other examples of tyrannical leaders who are willing to preside over a growing mountain of bodies as long as the leadership remains isolated from the physical and emotional consequences of its action.  Syria’s Assad doesn’t care that more than 100,000 of his people have died or that polio is killing a generation.  He still lives in his palace.  North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un will commit any atrocities against his own people provided that he can retain his power.  They are the modern-day Pharaohs.

Even here at home, one can argue in less apocalyptic tones that our president, who is one of the wealthiest men in America, doesn’t care that his actions have ensured the longest recession since the Carter years, the highest unemployment since the Carter years, the most unstable world in terms of national security since the Carter years or even the 1930s, the most serious divisiveness amongst the American people since the Civil War, etc.   Sheltered in the White House, listening to the adulation of the glitterati in Hollywood and the New York/D.C. media, he is unaffected by the plagues affecting ordinary Americans.  And as long as he is unaffected, he will harden his heart to the cries of his people begging for relief from perpetually failed economic policies, weak national leadership, porous borders, socialized medicine, militarized government agencies, etc.  If Obama seems as if he doesn’t care about the people’s suffering . . . it’s because he doesn’t.

When power doesn’t reside in the people, but resides, instead, in a single group that is insulated from all but the most terrible strikes, small plagues are utterly useless. These small plagues, no matter how much they affect the ordinary citizen, do not affect the decision-making process in which a tyrant engages. The only thing that will move the tyrant is to destroy his power base. Everything else is theater.

With that, I’d like to wish all of you a Happy Passover. Whether Jewish or not, I hope that the Pesach celebration serves as an occasion for all of us to remember that, though the price may sometimes be high, both for slave and master, our goal as just and moral human beings must be freedom. So please join with me in saying, as all Jews do at this time of year, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

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  • Ymarsakar

    Those that serve entropy, the methods of evil, to render unto this universe the equality of one identity, one temperature, can only be stopped if they feel the pain themselves. Other than Death, pain is one of the useful ways for the servants of evil and darkness to accept that Eternity is not utopia and it isn’t pleasant.
    Until the tyrants feel the pain for themselves, they can rationalize it out. Or like Stalin, they’ll enjoy being able to sleep well at night after signing the death warrant for a family.
    Those that refuse to hate evil or cannot hate evil, will find it hard to harden their hearts and see evil hurt or destroyed. Until evil is hurt or destroyed, evil will never stop, not even momentarily. So long as evil is around, humanity is not safe. Thus hate, like any other emotion, serves the purpose of keeping humans existent on this plane of existence.
    Without love, it cannot be seen. Without hate, it cannot be discerned. There are things about a parent, a nation, that you cannot see unless you love that entity. Just the same, there are things in this existence that cannot be understood without hate.

  • Earl

    Never heard this lesson taught from the story of Moses and Pharaoh…but it rings true!
    Still doesn’t deal with the language indicating that it was G-d who “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”.  I’ve never heard anyone who reads the original language comment on this.  It always struck me that the writer  saw   G-d as all-powerful and nothing happened that He didn’t cause (I know people who look at the world in this way, even today), and thus attributed to Him the decisions that Pharaoh made.
    I concede that there is a good deal in the text itself that makes this interpretation problematic…but the other makes our view of the Deity a bit problematic, so I prefer mine!

    • Ron19

      It may have been G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh still made his own decision.  G-d just used what was available, as he did with Judas Iscariot’s decision in yesterday’s Gospel reading. 

  • Jose

    It’s worth remembering the Egyptians had already started a campaign of genocide against the Jews. All the male children were killed at birth when Moses was born, which was why he was hidden. Later they were forced to build bricks without straw, in order to work them to death.

    When God “hardened” Pharaoh’s heart, he simply directed those genocidal impulses in a certain direction.

    Happy Passover.

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  • Spartacus

    Some of the nicest people I’ve met really — how to put this? — enjoy delving into the details of this debate.
    “We have chosen to follow God.”
    “Well, God chose us to follow Him.”
    “Well, God knew that we would choose Him, but we made the choice.”
    “Well, of course God knew that we would choose Him, because we were predestined to choose Him.”
    “But it was a choice that was predestined.”

    Now, my thought is to fast-forward past all this to the bit about, “Love the Lord with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Disclaimer:  Results may vary.  Void where inhibited.  Consult your physician if concerned about the condition of your heart.)  And in order to love all of my neighbors, I’m trying to provide the world with a clean, renewable, and unlimited power source by figuring out how to take the unstoppable circular energy of the predestination debate and hook it to a generator.
    Personally, I perceive that we have freewill, so I use that working assumption.  If, at the end of things, that turns out to be wrong, then I was predestined to be wrong, and there wasn’t anything I could have done about it anyway.

  • Zachriel

    Spartacus: “Well, God chose us to follow Him.”  
    Tevye: “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”

    • Ymarsakar

      Zimmer wants god to choose the angel Zachriel to lead humanity. Then there won’t be any voter fraud.

  • Ymarsakar
    Apropos totalitarian angels, check that out.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Tevye’s refrain is a familiar one. Christians bear the burden, too (see “Nigeria”). 

  • Earl

    I learn the BEST things reading BW’s blog!!
    Thanks, Spartacus, for that little riff on predestination….I’ve never thought to put it that way, but it expresses my view pretty precisely, and I’m going to remember it.
    A little like someone’s (C.S. Lewis?) observation that if we live our lives as if there really were a heaven to win and a hell to shun, and then it turns out that we die and that’s it….what have we lost?  Because the Bible instructs us how to live a joyful and fulfilled life!!

    • Spartacus

      Oh, good.  Although I was thinking of discussions I’ve heard at church when I wrote that, I worried after clicking the “Post” button that folks might think I was reacting to the previous comments on the thread, which is totally not the case, so I’m glad it wasn’t misinterpreted.
      I’ve heard what you refer to called “Pascal’s Wager,” and although that’s more of a “does God exist” thing than an “are we predestined” thing, it was probably lurking in my subconscious when I commented.  It would kind of surprise me if Lewis, prolific as he was, never discussed that, although you sure couldn’t prove it by me, which reinforces my suspicion that many of us regard this blog as a good place to fill in those random little knowledge gaps that we all have!  😉