Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Happy Passover

Celebrated: For more than 3,000 years, by Jews and followers of successor faiths (including Christianity), from the 15th day of Nisan to the 22nd day of Nisan

Chag sameach, everybody. Passover and Holy Week don't always fall during the same week, but they should, and this week they do. From a theological standpoint, it's critically important that Jesus died during the Passover festival; he was the firstborn who sacrificed himself so that everyone else could be saved. But that's a longer discussion than I'm up for this morning, so we'll move along.

The God of the Old Testament is an angry, scary God — usually just, but not always. I was five or six when I first understood the Passover story, and what caught my imagination was not the promise of redemption but all the blood and guts that preceded it. God wanted Pharoah to liberate the Jewish people who were held in slavery, and when Pharoah rejected Moses's message, God sent ten successive plagues to show the futility of human opposition to God's will.

The tenth plague was the death of every firstborn son of Egypt, but God told Moses he would spare the Israelites — as long as they marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. After Pharoah saw this devastation, he ordered the Israelites out of Egypt, setting things up for the next 3,000+ years of wars over real estate.

Even when I was five or six, though, it did not escape me that the Jews weren't spared the first nine plagues, and those were horrible enough:
  1. The plague of blood - the water of the Nile turned to blood, killing all the fish and leaving everyone with nothing to drink.
  2. The plague of frogs - the Nile teemed with frogs, which invaded every room of every house in Egypt. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah actually agreed to liberate the slaves, though he changed his mind as soon as the frogs died.
  3. The plague of fleas (or lice, or gnats) - Egypt became infested with small insects. If you've ever suffered a flea infestation, you know they don't care about their targets' religion.
  4. The plague of flies - God sent swarms of flies to attack the Egyptians' livestock. According to the Torah, this plague did not affect the Land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, but everyone would have suffered from the death of livestock.
  5. The plague of disease - After the flies, a mysterious disease killed all the Egyptians' livestock, though the Israelites' cattle were spared. Even if this were true, Israelite slaves in Egyptian homes would have suffered from this, wouldn't they? 
  6. The plague of boils - Moses and Aaron threw soot into the sky, and every person or animal touched by it was infected with boils. Presumably Moses and Aaron weren't.
  7. The plague of hail - Thunder, hail and lightning fell on the entire land of Egypt, the worst storm in recorded history. Again, according to Exodus, the Land of Goshen, in the northeastern Nile delta, was spared.
  8. The plague of locusts - Before the eighth plague, God actually told Moses that he would harden Pharoah's heart just so Egypt would have to suffer through the last three plagues. That bothered me in first grade, and it bothers me still. Why? And locusts are gross. 1972 was a cicada year in northern Virginia, where we were living, and I still remember the horror of stepping on a cicada shell with bare feet. They look like prehistoric monsters. They are prehistoric monsters. I don't care that they're edible, or even kosher.
  9. The plague of darkness - Moses stretched out his hands and caused the sun to disappear from Egypt from three days, and the Land of Goshen was not exempt. 
My 1972 summer of locusts was also the summer of a total solar eclipse. The connection was not lost on my six-year-old brain. I was an anxious child to begin with, and for the first time in my life I was grateful to be the second twin, and a girl. If anyone was going to be killed, it would be my (older) twin sister, Kathy, or better yet, my two-year-old brother, Ed, who was no use to anyone, as far as I could tell. (Sorry, Ed.)

The lesson I took from all of this — which I still think is the lesson we're supposed to take from all of this — is that the universe, also known as God, is a random, angry place, and even the righteous can't count on being spared.

But sometimes we are spared. And when we are, we should celebrate and be glad, and thank the Power that Is, and feast while the food's available. Which is the point of the Passover festival. Where's the afikomen?

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