I first published a Passover post in March 2010, when Iran was in the news because of the Green Revolution. The Mullah’s tyranny resonated with me as I thought about the Passover story. But there’s tyranny in the world every year — in ISIS territory, in North Korea, in Cuba, in Putin’s Russia, and — God forbid — one day we might even see it here in America. The ordinary lessons we take from the Passover story — the escape from slavery, the handing down of core moral rules, and the birth of a new nation of Israel — are always relevant, but we should never forget the underlying message about the nature of tyranny:
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 (never mind that God does not — and does not intend to — erase the entirety 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. To a Jew looking to find fault with the Bible, God is a psycho killer who toys with Pharaoh the way a cat does with a mouse.
Some people have tried to explain away this part of the story by saying that it is simply dramatic license, meant to increase the tension and danger of the Jews’ escape from Egypt. After all, if it had been easy, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. Imagine if the story has Moses asking, “Hey, Pharaoh, can we go?” and Pharaoh answering “Sure.” That’s not a narrative with much punch or heroism, and God’s involvement is minimal or, at least, lacking in divine punch. It’s much more exciting to have 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.
Pretending that the story of the Exodus is nothing more than a dramatic narrative, subordinated to artistic demands, is silly. There’s a much more profound purpose behind the ten plagues, and that is to remind us of the tyrant’s capacity for tolerating others’ suffering, as long he personally does not suffer and his power remains intact.