The festival of Passover starts Saturday. Jews throughout the world will commemorate the exodus from Egypt and the birth of a covenantal people. Passover's narrative, culminating in the formation of the Jewish people, calls upon us, the living, to embrace its transcendent themes of freedom, peoplehood, rededication, gratitude and social justice, for "we were once slaves in the land of Egypt."
This year, there is an even greater imperative to understand the plagues and to seek wisdom from their moral meaning as we resolutely plow our own way through our current plague. This year the festival amplifies William Faulkner's observation that "the past is never dead. It's not even past."
The 10 plagues of the Passover narrative constituted a steadily escalating sequence of punishments, culminating in the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, all intended to overcome the intransigence of Pharaoh in refusing to release the Israelites from bondage. Yet, in the Passover narrative, the plagues are superseded in the joy of crossing the Red Sea, starting a journey to the promised land and creating the covenant with the divine.
But surely the trauma of the 10 plagues must have had a more long-lasting importance to the central figures in the Passover narrative — the Israelites, the Egyptians and the deity. And for us.
From the standpoint of the Israelites, was divine protection solely the result of the Israelites' faith or did it also create standards of conduct? Why did the Israelites deserve the love and protection of the deity?
Was there any regret at the sufferings caused by the plagues to the Egyptians? Did the goal of the exodus create any special, ongoing responsibility to justify God's intervention on behalf of the Israelites?
From the standpoint of the Egyptians, was there ever a sense that their own actions merited the plagues? Did they see themselves as innocent victims, or as deserving divine retribution, or simply as unfortunate victims of natural disasters? Did they conclude that perhaps all people have equal worth? Did their belief system change to embrace a single God?
And was there ever a moment when God questioned the justification of slaying the Egyptian firstborn or whether this was displaced punishment on guiltless victims? Why didn't God slay Pharaoh (the perpetrator of the Israelites' enslavement) and his enablers rather than the firstborn? Or perhaps God, the all-powerful, should have softened Pharaoh's heart by injecting into it mercy and justice rather than endowing Pharaoh with the free will to deny freedom to the Israelites?
Did God ever doubt whether the Israelites were really worthy of the extraordinary intervention provided to achieve their freedom?
We have now spent just over the last year embroiled in a plague — actually, a series of plagues encompassing a pandemic, civil unrest, political and social polarization, racism, and in this community, a horrific in-custody death and destructive aftermath. We have constricted our lives and our dreams to navigate our path through this plague.
Our challenge is whether in the post-plague era, we will dismiss our experiences as something akin to a bad dream or take it as an imperative to seek its deeper meaning and instructive wisdom.
Can we become a more inclusive people and nation, with our ears attuned and our hearts receptive to the diversity of inhabitants in our land?
Will we treasure more our family and friends, feeling the sacredness of their touch and presence?
Will we have a new and different understanding of the sanctity of our lives now that we have faced more directly the frailty of our existence?
Do we have a deeper connectedness with our place within the world and a shared vision of humanity, knowing that we all, ultimately, seek our collective passage to the promised land?
Robert Aronson is an immigration attorney at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis and chair of the board of HIAS, an agency of the American Jewish community globally serving refugees. Opinions expressed here are solely his own.