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.”