The myth and function of the Passover plagues


Passover is a wonderful holiday. It is a time to gather together with family and friends. It provides an opportunity to reconnect with the millennia old line of the Jewish People. On Passover, we reach back through the mists of time to the myths of our national origin. We seek to find lessons from the distant past which might guide us in our present.

The highlight of the festival is the reading of a story from the Haggadah, literally meaning “the story.” The story tells of the enslavement of ancient Israelites in the land of Egypt and their release from bondage following a series of ten calamities, commonly understood as plagues, which devastated Egypt. Those plagues, in the order of the story in the Book of Exodus are blood, frogs, lice, insects, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and the death of the Egyptian firstborn. (See Ex. 7:14-12:30.)

Today that core story, and its centuries of embellishments, is read, sung and discussed throughout the Passover seder (a ritual meal, literally “order”). All along the way we are requested to, challenged to, even required to ask questions, to probe into the meaning of the story. The whole exercise is quite dramatic, sometimes even including costumes and choreography. No wonder Passover is an incredibly popular Jewish holiday, with more Jews participating in a seder than fasting on the traditional holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur.

The Passover story is so powerful that its magic has not been dimmed by the increasing recognition that the premise of the story lacks a solid historical foundation. The Hebrew Bible states that six hundred thousand Israelites males, formerly slaves, along with woman, children and others left Egypt as part of a national exodus. (Ex. 12:37.) According to the traditional timetable, this mass migration occurred near the beginning of the thirteenth century B.C.E. As has been discussed here and elsewhere, however, that idea has been largely rejected.

First, there is no evidence to date of any mass slavery of ancient Israelites during the relevant time period. Second, consider the nature of the reported biblical caravan. According to the late biblical scholar Nahum Sarna, a group of about 2,000,000 individuals would have come out of Egypt. (See Sarna, Exploring Exodus (Schoken Books 1986) at 95.) If a group of that size marched twenty abreast, there would have been 100,000 rows of participants, exclusive of animals, carts and other things. If those rows were separated by just ten feet, the entire entourage would have, by application of simple mathematics, extended for around 190 miles. Aside from the problems that result raises with the sea crossing tale, there is no evidence that any movement of a population of that magnitude ever occurred into the Sinai Peninsula and up to the east bank of the Jordan River. Third, there is no evidence of any new settlement patterns established west of the Jordan by a substantial influx of new immigrants in the 13th century BCE. If the narrative were intended to be history as we moderns understand it, that is, a reasonably accurate statement and chronology of actual events, the story fails.

Now, if there were no mass enslavement of Israelites and no mass exodus of them, then surely there would not have been any need for liberating plagues either. Some still maintain, though, that the there is significant evidence for the biblical plagues outside of the biblical text. One such advocate is Israeli Egyptologist Galit Dayan who cites as proof of the biblical plagues an ancient Egyptian document known formally as the Admonitions of Ipuwer. The Ipuwer papyrus describes a time of considerable social and political chaos in Egypt. Dayan translates the hieroglyphs as follows: “Plague is throughout the land. . . . the river is blood . . . and the hail smote every herd of the field . . . there is a thick darkness throughout the land . . . the Lord smote all of the firstborn in the land of Egypt (including) the first born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne . . . .”

There are, however, a number of serious problems with the claim that the Ipuwer papyrus is evidence of the biblical plagues. One is that the Ipuwer papyrus contains a longer and more complex story than Dr. Dayan implies, and her list of events similar to certain biblical plagues amounts to a cherry picking of like situations, while failing to explain the absence in the Ipuwer papyrus of other biblical plagues like lice, insects and locusts. Moreover, the ordeals Ipuwer describes are not seen as coming from a powerful god acting on behalf of his people, but as the result of the ineptitude of an unnamed king. The social dynamics of Ipuwer’s story are also directly contrary to those in the biblical tale. Ipuwer’s story concerned the immigration of foreigners into Egypt, not the emigration of slaves from it. Perhaps most importantly, while there is a debate among Egyptologists regarding the dating of the events related in the papyrus, with some setting the story in the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2100 BCE) and others in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 2100-1700 BCE) (see Sarna, above, at 69), both of those dates are centuries before the 13th century date traditionally assigned to the Exodus.

The Ipuwer papyrus also has an extra-biblical competitor. Israeli born producer, director and writer Simcha Jacobovici argues that a 3500 year old Egyptian monument known as the Tempest or Storm Stela provides archeological evidence for the Exodus. He contends that a new translation of the stela proves that a massive eruption of a volcano on the Greek island of Santorini generated a storm which flooded Egyptian temples, and plunged Egypt into darkness for days. As in the biblical plague story, loud voices were heard and the Egyptians were seized with terror. (See Ex. 9:29, 15:14.) Jacobovici claims that the stela proves that the Pharaoh at the time, Ahmose (r. 1550-1525 BCE), the storm and the contemporaneous expulsion of certain Asiatics known as the Hyksos are the basis of the Exodus story.

Jacobovici’s argument displays the same defects as the claim based on the Ipuwer’s papyrus. While there clearly was a massive volcanic eruption on Santorni, which scientists date to between 1645 and 1600 BCE, and that event may even have had some impact more than 450 miles away in Egypt, it occurred at least half a century before Ahmose’s reign. Timing aside, there is no claim, much less any proof, that the volcanic eruption generated a series of plagues in Egypt as related in the Exodus story. Finally, no convincing explanation is offered to fill a long historical gap and connect the expulsion of some (but not all) Hyskos in the 16th century BCE with the emergence of a recognizable Israel community in the late 13th century BCE and a kingdom in the 10th century BCE.

Not only are the attempts to establish the historicity of the Egyptian plagues wanting for lack of hard proof, there is also no basis for the initial assumption that the Passover story generally and the plagues specifically were even intended to be taken literally, to be historical statements, as we moderns understand that concept. To the contrary, both the text of the Torah we have today and other references in the Hebrew Bible strongly suggest otherwise.

Exclusive of the recitation of ten plagues in the Book of Exodus, plagues in Egypt are discussed two separate times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Psalms. (See Psalm 78:42-51 and Psalm 105:28-36.) In both of the recitations in Psalms, there are only seven plagues, though, and the seven are neither the same in both lists nor is their order the same. What does this mean?

The presence in the Hebrew Bible of these different accounts is actually quite instructive. First, it indicates that when elements of the text were being collected and collated, the editors were familiar with more than one tradition respecting plagues. This is no different, and therefore no more surprising, than the retention in the Torah of alternative traditions concerning such matters as creation, the flood, the Ten Commandments and the spies, to name a few instances where different renditions of traditional stories have been maintained.

The larger story, as found in Exodus, itself appears to be an edited and conflated version of several traditions. Referencing classic biblical source criticism, Yale biblicist Christine Hayes teaches that each of the primary biblical sources known as J, E and P supply some, but not all of the ten plagues. Specifically, she says that J is the source of eight plagues, E provided three and P supplied five, but there are some overlaps. (See Transcript, 1/12.) Significantly, Hayes does not identify D as a source for any of the plagues. In discussing the exodus in Deuteronomy, Moses merely obliquely references “signs” and “wonders,” and fails to mention any specific plagues at all, save perhaps boils and locusts (or crickets). (See Deut. 4:34, 28:27, 38, 42.)

Literary analysis of the plagues lists is also instructive. Each list in Exodus and in Psalms was written as if complete, signaled by either seven or ten components. In the world of biblical symbolism, those numbers indicate wholeness and perfection. (See Sarna, above, at 74.) Further, the more extensive narrative in Exodus is structured carefully, not only as three series of three plagues each, with a stunning climax, but also including within each series repeated patterns of and phrasing for elements of the story.

In short, the theme of plagues seems to have been common during the extended time the Hebrew Bible was being formulated, but the details of the story were quite fluid. There can be little doubt, then, that the story of the plagues in the Torah we have received today is a product of craftsmanship rather than reporting.

But all this begs a critical question: why include a plague story at all in the larger Exodus drama? If the authors merely wanted to convey a spectacle of the majesty and triumph of the Israelite God, they could have invoked images of God splitting of the Nile, a feat more difficult than simply turning it red as even Egyptian magicians could do. (See Ex. 7:22.)They could have had God appear as alternate pillars of cloud and fire, as later claimed during the trek though the wilderness. (See Ex. 13:21.) Or God could have created an oasis, a tiny Eden, or rained down quail and manna instead of hail and locusts (see Ex. 16:13-15), not only to demonstrate creative and fulsome power, but to illustrate the rewards that Egypt could earn through conciliation with the Israelites. That is, the story could have offered divine carrots instead of sticks.

Clearly the purpose of this carefully designed and structured composition was not meant merely to demonstrate either awesome supernatural power generally or the control of nature specifically. It certainly was not meant to induce behavior with compassion and beneficence. Rather, the purpose of invoking plagues seems to have been an exceptionally clever use of a story that was itself dramatic and had some broad acceptability in the popular culture in order to advance a theology at least of monolatry, if not monotheism.

As the Torah text explicitly states, the plagues were selected to defeat and humiliate the gods and symbols of imperial Egypt. They were aimed “ubechol elohe Mitzrayim,” that is, at all the gods of Egypt. (Ex. 12:12.) This view is corroborated later in the Torah. Describing the day after the first Passover, the text claims success for the onslaught: “Yahweh made judgment on their gods.” (Num. 33:4.) The ancient Egyptians had many deities, and the names and roles changed over time. But it is possible to construct a list of the plausible targets of the biblical authors.

The attack begins with the lifeline of Egypt, the Nile River. (Ex. 7:19.)Turning the river to blood would cripple all agriculture and commerce which depended on the river, which is to say most of the Egyptian economy. For the biblical authors, it also represented a multi-pronged assault: the defeat of Hapi, the guardian the Nile, of Khnum, the god of the inundation of the Nile, and of Osiris, god of the underworld, for whom the Nile served as his bloodstream. The second plague was directed to a god symbolized by a frog, that is, Heqet, the goddess of fertility. The Egyptian god of the earth was Geb. Turning the dust of the earth into lice (or perhaps fleas) showed his impotence.

The war on the Egyptian pantheon continues in the second series of plagues. The definition of the fourth plague, arov, is uncertain. It suggests a swarm or horde of insects, often understood as flies. But the text also says that the swarm would fill not only the Egyptian houses, but the land under them. (Ex. 8:17.) Quite possibly the reference is to the scarab or dung beetle, as one of the most prominent Egyptian insect gods, Khepri, was depicted with the head of a scarab. Striking cattle with disease on cattle surely would have embarrassed any one of several Egyptian gods represented by animal heads, such as Apis, the bull, and Hathor, the goddess of the desert and symbolic mother of Pharaoh. Similarly, the spread of boils illustrated the impotence of Imhotep, the god of medicine and healing.

In the third series, the rain of very heavy hail would demonstrate the weakness of Nut, the sky goddess, and mother of other prominent deities. The swarm of locusts that ate everything apparently could not be stopped by any of the agricultural gods and goddesses like Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest, or her son Neper, the grain god, or by the god of wind and chaos, Seth. The final plague in the series, that of a thick multi-day darkness in all the land of Egypt, was surely an act of war, and a successful one at that, on the supreme sun god known as Ra (or Re) or Horus, and often depicted with a man’s body and the head of a falcon.

The import of the story so far, then, was that the gods of Egypt were incapable of protecting their respective domains, and that Pharaoh could not protect his subjects. With the final, and most devastating plague, that of the death of Egypt’s first born males at midnight, we learn that Pharaoh could not even protect his own household or the system of primogeniture on which Egyptian law was based. Neither Renenutet, the guardian of Pharaoh, nor Selket, the guardian of protection and healing, were of any use.

As Rutgers Jewish historian Gary Rendsburg teaches, modern readers of the Hebrew Bible, unfamiliar with the authors’ society and the cultural clues contained in the text will “miss many of nuances that make the stories so fresh and loaded with meaning.” (At 3/4.)That is true, of course, and important. Still, we are left with critical questions. Why was any account of plagues ultimately included in the Torah? What function did it serve? What did the final redactors want their immediate audience to learn?

Unfortunately, we cannot say with precision when particular stories were first written or when they were incorporated into the canon. Much work appears to have been done in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, with final revisions coming during and after the Babylonian Exile. Arguably, given the inconsistencies between Ezra and Nehemiah about something as seemingly basic as a fall holiday, one could argue, as does University of Michigan scholar Lisbeth Fried, that the canon was not even set by the end of the Persian Period. Obviously, this is quite an extended time.

Moreover, this was a time of considerable turmoil, politically and theologically. A member of the educated class, attuned to cultural cues, might well have recognized the Egyptian motifs referenced in the story of the plagues. If he did, then he would also know that the story was not an eye-witness account of events, but a symbolic war between the then dominant Israelite god, Yahweh, and the gods of Egypt, headed by the Sun-god Ra. At the same time, Egypt’s influence over the Children of Israel was not as strong during this period as it once was. The Assyrians crushed the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 720 BCE, and the Kingdom of Judah having barely survived a subsequent assault existed at the sufferance of the Assyrians. The Assyrians subsequently fell to King Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonians. Then, following a series of invasions at the beginning of the 6th century BCE, the complete destruction of the Judahite capital, Jerusalem, and the transfer of Judahite royalty and leadership to Babylon, Judah became a vassal state of Babylon. Babylon, in turn, fell to Cyrus about sixty years later. While Cyrus allowed Judahites to return home, their province, now known as Yehud, was now a small province in the Persian Empire and ultimately subject to Persian control. Toward the end of the 4th century BCE, Persia, and with it Yehud, fell to Alexander and the Greeks.

In the midst of this extended geopolitical war, a multi-faceted religious battle continued as well. With the advent of the reform prophets in the 8th century BCE, polytheism came under increased attack from both those who favored either the supremacy of Yahweh over lesser gods and those who recognized Yahweh as the sole god. And those camps contended with each other. The latter monotheistic view seems to have gained ascendance in the 7th century with the rise of the Deuteronomistic school, but fate, in the form of the death of King Josiah of Judah and the ascendancy of King Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon, intervened.

The destruction of Jerusalem could have ended this nascent monotheism. After all, if Yahweh were the sole true god, he certainly did not protect his treasured people, or his promised land, or even his house, his temple, from ruin. Ironically, though, far from ending monotheism because of the impotence of the deity, the exile from and return to Judah was understood by Judahite leadership differently. Influenced by the Deuteronomists, they argued that the people failed Yahweh, not the other way around. The solution of the surviving and returning leaders, like Ezra, was a stronger commitment to what they saw as the one true god. This was the broad context in which the contents of the Torah seem to have been finalized. And, if so, this context helps us understand how the plague story may have functioned at that time.

Rather than directed to a sophisticated reader in Judah or even in the established community of Judahite emigres in Egypt, who would understand the references to the Egyptian pantheon, the story of the plagues may well have been intended to underscore for post-exhilic Judahites who had returned, or were thinking of returning, that the worship of false gods of any kind, whether Canaanite or Babylonian or Persian or of any other origin, was improper and destructive. That is, beyond the explicit message, lay an implicit lesson: just as the gods of Egypt were no match for the Israelite God, neither are any of the current local gods. In a time that required nation building, the story served, then, to provide a unifying theological feature in the larger text which functioned as a unifying statement of a people’s creation and history and a unifying anthology of its traditions.

Myth based Judaism has generated compelling stories and, at its best, a compassionate culture. The story of the Israelites’ escape from bondage serves as a beacon to all who are oppressed and as a reminder to those of us fortunate enough to be free to remember what slavery might have been like, how it must have felt to have been a stranger in a strange land. During the seder, as the plagues are mentioned, we remove some wine from our cups to diminish the sweetness of the Israelite’s escape, to recognize the suffering of others and to temper our joy. These are worthy lessons.

But myth based Judaism has its limits, and pretending that myths are reality is not only intellectually indefensible, it can be counter-productive, even self-destructive, as well. If we take bible stories as statements of historical truth, when they are not, and if we purposefully avoid trying to understand what the authors intended their audience to learn, we act as nothing less than illiterate literalists.

Reality based Judaism acknowledges that neither the Exodus nor the plagues occurred as depicted, that the plagues are a myth within a larger myth, set in a time when humankind often identified each aspect of nature, of life itself, with a separate god. Some may conclude from that acknowledgement that the Jewish freedom narrative lacks not only foundation, but merit. But reality based Judaism also rejects the nihilism of superficial contemporary readers who fail to come to grips with both the original intent and redeeming transcendent value of the story. Rather, reality based Judaism accepts the challenge of Passover to dig deeply into the tale, to ask a question and then another and yet another. It seeks to wrestle with the text and extract both truth and wisdom from this powerful story. When we do, when we struggle with the broader myth, and the more troubling one contained in it, we recognize that the authors had matured enough to grasp the fallacy of false gods.

If we want to build a Judaism for tomorrow, we need to look back to the origins of our texts and traditions. We need to try to understand not just what our foundational texts say, but why they say it. We need to become familiar with the context of the content of those works to determine what end the founders sought to achieve. This is the challenge and this is the opportunity of reality based Judaism, as we, too, need to reject false gods and be guided by truth and wisdom.

A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

Q & A With Bruce Feiler


“Where God Was Born: A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion” by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, $26.95).

With daily reports of suicide bombings in Iraq, never-ending violence between Israelis and Palestinians and Iran’s nuclear threat, it can be hard to imagine the Middle East as the birthplace of monotheism and all the ethics and piety that implies. But this heritage is exactly what Bruce Feiler explores in his new book.

In it, Feiler writes of his travels to Israel, Iraq and Iran — accompanied by various archeologists, theologians and historians. He tells the story against the backdrop of regional violence, interspersing observations on the Bible with descriptions of his bulletproof clothing. He shares his fear of being attacked and the very real danger of traveling on Iraqi highways. The book, in places, becomes an extreme travel memoir, depicting in lucid detail both risk and incredible cultural beauty.

Feiler spoke to The Journal by phone while taking a break from moving into his new Brooklyn home, which he shares with his wife and his 6-month-old identical twin girls.

Jewish Journal: Your new work follows on the heels of two that touched on consonant themes: “Walking the Bible, a Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses” (William Morrow, 2001) and “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths” (William Morrow, 2002). What compelled you to write this new book?

Bruce Feiler: When I did “Walking the Bible,” it was a very personal journey. [I wanted to know] were these stories real? Could I find the places where they took place? But between then and now religion no longer has the luxury of being personal. It has really become much more urgent, and much more a matter of life and death, it seems. Conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq, and even in the United States, everything from the battle over the Ten Commandments to Terry Schiavo to gay marriage [all have to do with religion].

I recently read a Time magazine cover story from 1966 titled “Is God Dead?” that said religions was dead as an influence in world affairs, and would never return again. I wanted to figure out why religion was the dominant story in the world now. The idea was to go back to the roots of religion itself, and to ask: Is it tearing us apart or bringing us together?

JJ: How do you view the Bible — as history? As a God-written manuscript?

BF: I view it as a story of how God and humans tried to develop a relationship with one another, and I believe that it had to contain great truth, and I think that it contains great meaning for life. I also believe it contains a wide variety of rhetorical techniques — history, law, poetry, really boring filibusters, a kind of legislative tedium, legend, psalms….

One reason for the Bible’s enduring power is that it is not a complete history. If you were turn it in to a newspaper editor, he would say, ‘please go out and do more reporting.’ What is left out is as important as what is put in. It invites each of us to enter the story…. Every generation can reinterpret it.

The story of Abraham sacrificing his son, for example. If you read that story on Sept. 10, 2001, and on Sept. 12, 2001, you would get a totally different understanding of it.

JJ: How so?

BF: The idea of killing in the name of God is introduced with Abraham, and that is just one story that seems very relevant to the times we live in today.

JJ: Do you think that the current Middle East conflict is a religious one or a political one?

BF: I think that it is primarily a geopolitical conflict, but that all sides use religion when they want to and ignore it when they want to. I don’t believe that you can use the Bible to draw borders and solve political problems. It is not what it was intended for.

JJ: Do you think that the ancient cities you visited, such as Jericho in Israel, Nasiriyah in Iraq and Pasargardae and Persepolis in Iran, fostered ancient societies that were more religious than the current communities who live in them today?

BF: That is a very hard question to answer. On the one hand, religion infused ancient society. There had not been science and rationality, nor the enlightenment and modern technology, which have changed the way we experienced religion. And literacy was not as widespread.

When religion was being formed in the middle of the first millennium, great religions were being formed all over the world, and it is pretty clear that the great religions were in dialogue with one another and in dialogue with the cultures around them. And the idea that one religion had an exclusive claim to the truth, I don’t think was a very widespread notion. I think that something that Christianity and Islam introduced into the world was that there can be one universal faith and everyone in the world will follow it. That has been a very destructive idea in the world in the past 1,000 years.

JJ: The history that you give of the Jewish people in “Where God Was Born,” which comes from a literalist reading of the Bible, is one of a bellicose, combative nation of militants. Does it worry you that our ancient leaders, like King David, were so bloodthirsty? How do you reconcile these bloodthirsty heroes with their current canonization, which is something that is taught in most Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools?

BF: I kind of understand why day school teachers want to teach David as a hero, because young Jews are looking for heroes who are strong and stick up for themselves. But I would say that one of things I have learned about the Bible is that we don’t have to accept the way we are taught. The stories are not black and white, and that is why they are interesting. One of the reasons that people don’t like the Bible is because they talk about it the same way that they did when they were 5. The fact that David was a failed leader gives me a lot to think about, and that is interesting.

JJ: Tell me about your own Judaism — how have the journeys taken in your last three books transformed your experience of faith?

BF: I have discovered a number of positive reasons to be Jewish, to balance off a lot of the negative reasons I heard when I was young — such as the Holocaust, discrimination, Israel is imperiled. The question [I am interested in] is can the religions get along, and Judaism has a very powerful, positive message to contribute to that conversation. We can teach the Christians and the Muslims that it is OK if everyone doesn’t agree with you, and it is OK not to impose your faith on others.

In the end, we all have to make our own relationship with God, that we can no longer accept what our politicians tell us, or our journalists tell us, or our parents tell us. We don’t have to just accept what our religious leaders tell us either. Each of us has to make our own relationship with God.

Meet Bruce Feiler Oct. 25, 7 p.m. at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. For information, call (626) 449-5320 or visit

Shunning of Wigs Exposes Media Flaw


The media had a grand time recently when tens of thousands of Jewish women stopped wearing their wigs out of concern that they might contain hair that had been offered to an idol. The more revealing story, though, lay not in the deep dedication to the Second Commandment but in the feeding frenzy of the Fourth Estate.

The facts of the wig-shunning are simple enough. Halacha (Jewish religious law) considers a married woman’s hair to constitute a beauty reserved for her own eyes and those of her husband, and so an assortment of head coverings — including wigs, made either of synthetic or human hair — are worn by observant married women.

What happened of late was the realization that much hair from India — which in turn constitutes a good chunk of the human hair market — is shorn as part of Hindu religious rites. Since Hinduism is polytheistic and venerates physical objects, it has the halachic status of idolatry, and idolatrous offerings are forbidden for use in any way by Jews.

A respected rabbi went on a fact-finding mission to the Tirubati temple in India, where 25,000 pilgrims are said to arrive daily to cut their hair. He reported his findings to a preeminent senior halachic decisor in Israel, who ruled, based on the facts presented, that wearing wigs made from Indian hair indeed seemed to present a halachic problem.

As that information was publicized, Orthodox Jewish wig wearers responded by eschewing their hairpieces until they could ascertain the wigs’ provenance, or until religious authorities could sift through all the facts and pertinent halachic principles. Wig stores catering to Orthodox women researched their wares’ pedigrees or canceled orders until they could ensure that the hair they were selling was halachically acceptable.

Then came the deluge. The New York Times placed the story on its front page and then ran a follow-up piece, which termed the happenings an "emotional upheaval."

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency described the situation as an "uproar" and quoted an observer who called it "mass hysteria."

The editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal mocked the Jewish women’s reaction as an "absurdity" and suggested that they had been coerced by "Orthodox rabbis [all male]." Other media took similar approaches to the goings-on.

Those of us in the Orthodox community were amused — though rather surprised — by all the attention. Obviously, we took the issue seriously, but there was little sign around us of armed uprising or end-of-the-world hysteria.

The women among us selflessly and responsibly put aside their wigs in favor of other head-coverings until they could ascertain their "kosher" status, and those wigs that did not meet halachic standards were discarded. To be sure, the wig story was the talk of our own global village, but what we read about ourselves in the larger world’s press seemed like so much yellow journalism and purple prose.

Not long ago, all of us Americans were being warned about anthrax. After germ-laced mail was discovered here and there, we treated our mailboxes like terrorist lairs. Some of us wore rubber gloves to bring in the bills and flyers; suspicious letters were reported to the authorities. Hazmat-suited investigators gingerly entered places suspected of contamination in Washington, D.C., New York and elsewhere.

The media, of course, well covered that heightened state of concern for that invisible menace. But the caution those days was not characterized as hysteria, nor were there many words of mockery or disdain for the precautions taken.

The contrast between the media’s treatment of one population’s concern for a biohazard and another’s concern for a major religious principle highlights the unfortunate fact that, to the press, religion is silly. To most people, though, religion indeed matters.

We’ve certainly seen the negative side of that coin of late, with mass murderers clearly motivated by warped but undeniably religious concerns. But even as we confront the fact — and it’s hardly a new one — that religious devotion can lead to evil things, we must not fall prey to treating religious devotion, inherently, as suspect.

Judaism’s core teaching is monotheism; devotion to that ideal can be expressed in myriad ways — from the daily proclamation of God’s oneness in the Shema to the refusal to use an item that may have been used in a polytheistic rite. To believing and observant Jews, such things are parts of the highest human achievement: service to God.

The press’ treatment of the wig controversy in the Orthodox Jewish community did not adequately recognize that fact. That lapse may have been a manifestation of the reality revealed in a recent Pew Research Center survey. A mere 12 percent of self-described "moderate" journalists said they thought belief in God is a necessary underpinning of morality. Among self-described "liberals," the figure was a mere 3 percent.

While the journalists polled were not asked if they themselves believe in a Divine Being, one might be forgiven for surmising what the result of that question would have been — or for imagining that it might well have helped explain why so much of journalism today has so jaundiced a view of anything religious.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

Have You But One Blessing?


It began with the first two human born into this world, the world’s first brothers.

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil. Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings of his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell (Genesis 4:3-5).

How did Cain know? The offerings are placed upon the altar. As each is set aflame, the smoke rises. How can one possibly ascertain that God accepts one and rejects the other? No, here the Torah tells us something deeper — not how it really was, but how it appeared to Cain, the world’s first aggrieved brother. In my fantasy, Cain crosses the field to his brother. "Say Abel, show me how you did that." But alas, when they were in the field, Cain set upon his brother, Abel, and killed him (Genesis 4:8). And so it began.

Sigmund Freud proposed that the dynamic of human personality is shaped in the Oedipal complex — the young boy’s adoration of his mother leading to conflict and ultimate identification with his father. The Torah, as well, locates the primal human drama within the family, but in a different relationship — in the struggle among brothers. The Torah itself is structured around a set of tense brother stories: Cain and Abel; Noah’s sons; Abraham and his brother’s son, Lot; Ishmael and Isaac; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and his brothers; Moses and Aaron. They struggle for position, power, priority, but most of all, they struggle for their father’s blessing.

When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son, Esau, and said to him, "My son."

Esau answered, "Here I am."

And Issac said, "I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. Then prepare a dish for me such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my innermost blessing before I die" (Genesis 27:1-2).

Esau, faithful but thick, is supplanted by his trickster brother, Jacob, who hides his smooth skin beneath his smooth words to seduce the father into granting him the family blessing. Esau returns with the hard-won venison and prepares his father’s dish, only to discover that his blessing has been taken.

When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst into wild and bitter sobbing and said to his father, "Bless me, too, Father!"

But Issac answered, "Your brother came with guile and took away your blessing."

And Esau said to his father, "Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!" And Esau wept aloud (Genesis 27:34-35, 38).

For the first time, we can feel sympathy for him. Crude, violent, impulsive, there is nevertheless something genuine and good in Esau’s ferocious loyalty to his father. And something moving in his vulnerability. So into his mouth is placed the Bible’s harshest critique of its own monotheism: Have you but one blessing, Father? Who told Father Isaac there was only one blessing to split between two sons? Must one God imply only one blessing, only one birthright, only one way, only one truth? Does God accept only one brother’s offering and reject the other’s? Is there room for only one brother in this land, in this world? If so, teaches the Torah, we are doomed to reiterate an endless cycle of fratricide, generation after generation.

The Messiah will not arrive, according to an old tradition, until Esau’s tears are exhausted. Redemption comes when Father Isaac and all his descendants find in the infinite heart of God a fitting blessing for Esau — a place for the other brother. Redemption comes when the ehad (oneness) of monotheism is read as the most inclusive of theologies. Only then will we fulfill the prayer of the Psalmist, "How good and how pleasant it is that brothers dwell together" (Psalms 133:1).

Elijah


As the seder evening proceeds, my son wants to know one thing: "When will Elijah get here?"

From earliest childhood, he captures our imagination. We wait for him and wonder about him. We invite Elijah the prophet to visit us at our seder table, drink from his cup, and then move on, to visit the next seder, down the street or across the world.

But who is this magical, mysterious visitor — and what is he doing at our seder?

The biblical Elijah was a defender of God, a champion of monotheism who battled monarchs and religious leaders for the sake of God’s name. But it is his death — more than his life — that intrigues. The story, as told in the biblical book of Kings, tells us that Elijah does not pass away in the normal sense; instead, he is somehow "taken" by God, swooped up into heaven "in a whirlwind." After that, there is no mention of Elijah again until the very last words of the very last prophet, Malachi, which will be chanted in synagogues this Shabbat. That text tells us that Elijah will come and "reconcile parents with children and children with their parents" (Malachi 3:24).

The unifier of generations. The reconciler of parents and children. With such a near-impossible task in his portfolio, Elijah becomes something more than mortal, something larger than life. The prophet who will accomplish the miracle of warming the hearts of the generations to each other becomes endowed with even more qualities, with a range of universal to very personal implications. The figure of Elijah transforms into an invitation — to ultimate redemption, to peace and reconciliation in this pained world.

He is seen as the front-runner of the Messiah, the one who will announce that better days are coming for all of us. But his powers are not limited to that vast application. In talmudic literature, we see a figure who appears, inexplicably, in all variety of situations: a synagogue, a study hall, a rabbinic discussion. Always, Elijah acts as a wise man, a counselor to the rabbis, a dispenser of special insights.

But Elijah’s mysterious appearances do not stop there. Throughout our literature and lore, the prophet has been known to show up even in unlearned circles, in the streets, homes and businesses of the common man. Stories abound, granting him numerous cameo roles as mystery guest, miracle worker, guardian angel, agent of God. For thousands of years, mortals have encountered Elijah, realizing only after the fact that the quiet visitor, the beggar at the door, the magical man — often lining up help for the poor and suffering — was Elijah himself.

He is a richly textured and multidimensional character. Bringer of the Messiah and guardian of orphans. Many parts of a complex whole. But what’s he doing at our seder?

Jewish tradition imbues Elijah with the job of heralding the ultimate, worldly redemption. And Passover night, with all its sights, sounds, words and images, is a celebration of redemption. But there is even another reason for Elijah’s nocturnal visitation.

In the Talmud, when there are matters of debate that cannot be solved by mortals, Elijah is invoked: the Rabbis declare "Teiku," an acronym for words which mean "Elijah will someday come and resolve all difficulties and problems." Through Elijah, stalemates will end. Impossible questions will be answered. And the darkest recesses will be illuminated.

On Pesach, the night of redemption also is a night of questions. From "Ma Nishtana" through the song "Echad Mi Yodeia," the act of questioning, of pointing out problems and inconsistencies, defines the seder ritual. Questioning and redemption are two sides of the same coin. A sense of Israelite redemption can be experienced only through a process of rigorous asking, through hours of seeking.

"Where is he?" my son wants to know. "When is Elijah coming?" Perhaps he is here already, happy to fulfill his many tasks as long as we seek him with our questions.

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