Pestilence, boils and locusts are out. AIDS, terrorism and global warming are in.
In an effort to provide a contemporary perspective to Passover seders, some people are adding a modern-day twist to the centuries-old rituals.
The ceremonial feasts, which start tonight in Jewish homes, are celebrations of the Jews being freed from slavery. Customs include the drinking of four cups of wine (representing the four promises of deliverance in Exodus 6:6), eating symbolic foods and a reading of the Haggadah, the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
This involves a recitation of the passages in Exodus listing the 10 plagues that God inflicted upon the Egyptians. It was after the 10th plague, the death of the first-born sons, that the Egyptians chased away the Jews, effectively freeing them from slavery.
In some homes, a new seder tradition is taking root: using the Haggadah to spin off a discussion of modern-day plagues.
We polled a cross-section of folks, from rabbis to rank-and-file synagogue members and even some non-Jews, to find out what might be included on such a list were it to be drawn up now.
The conclusion: 10 plagues isn't nearly enough to encompass all the woes facing the world today. It takes more like 30, and even that involves lumping some of them into large categories such as "bigotry," which includes racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and religious hatred.
It also requires a redefinition of the terms.
"One could argue that these 'plagues' are fundamentally different than the ones in the Passover story because they can be seen as humankind's own creations and not sent by God," said list contributor Dan Weiss. "Nonetheless, I think this list represents conditions that plague humankind and cause us suffering today."
Another respondent, Jan Markell, noted that the original plagues afflicted all Egyptians. Using that yardstick, she said, there is only one true plague today: the economy.
"A disease hits a percentage" of the populace, she said. "Escalating fuel and food [prices], housing problems and the loss of jobs hit every single household and become its own 21st-century plague."
Several people suggested that the lists be broken down geographically, separating situations that tend to be of more concern in the United States -- homelessness, domestic abuse and gaps in health insurance -- from global issues, such as war, genocide and human rights abuses. And it was offered that the lists could differentiate between themes -- greed and fanaticism, for instance -- and specific items, such as AIDS and the Ebola virus.
Opinions over what constitutes a modern-day plague also varied widely. Respondents listing global warming and terrorism were counterbalanced by those who singled out SUVs and bottled water. Reality TV shows made the list, as did cell phones.
There was even one vote for the mosquitoes in northern Minnesota. (Before you accuse this person of making light of Passover traditions, keep in mind that the suggestion came from a rabbi.)
The top 10 suggestions
• Extremism/terrorism in any form for any cause.
• Diseases, including AIDS, cancer, Ebola, sexually transmitted diseases, SARS and the returns of polio and TB.
• Environmental problems, including global warming and pollution.
• Human rights abuses.
• Poverty, a category expanded to include hunger and homelessness.
• Bigotry based on race, gender, religion, sexual preference or age.
An expanded list
• Domestic abuse.
• Government officials who can't be trusted.
• The lack of health insurance for 45 million Americans.
• Bottled water.
• Antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
• Binge drinking.
• Attention-deficit disorder.
• Reality TV.
• Cell phones.
• Junk food.
• People who refuse to take responsibility for themselves and their actions.
• North Woods mosquitoes.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392