Pesach: Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Pesach

This week is Parshat Tzav, which is largely concerned with the
dedication of the priests to serve in the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary)
and also Shabbat Hagadol, so named for a special haftarah (prophetic
reading) which ends with the promise that God will send Elijah the
prophet to announce a “great and terrible day” in which evil is
requited and Israel is restored. The connection to Pesach is the image
of Elijah announcing the coming of the messianic age; Elijah also
shows up at the Pesach Seder, connected with the hope that God will
bring a future redemption even greater than the Exodus from Egypt.

That’s the Torah reading for this week. Next week is Pesach itself,
and Monday night being the first Seder, the Executive Steering
Committee of rabbineal-list made the decision to offer a Pesach
thought now, so that those who wish to bring it to their Seders would
have time to do so. It also happens that the paragraphs written below
were prepared for the spring e-bulletin of the Coalition on the
Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL – linked below.)

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“Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience”

One of the most well-known customs of the Pesach Seder is to spill or
pour out a drop of wine during the recitation of each of the ten
“plagues” ( the blood, frogs, boils, lice, etc. . . ) There are
various ways this is accomplished: with a spoon, tipping the cup, or
using one’s finger, but the basic point, explained in most printed
Haggadot [Seder booklets], is that our feelings of sweetness and
gratitude (represented by a full cup of wine) are diminished by the
sufferings of others.

Given that the “others” in this case are the very people who enslaved
and oppressed our ancestors, the act of spilling wine is rather
remarkable- it’s not so easy to truly feel that one’s joy is
diminished because of the sufferings of one’s enemy. In fact, the
natural human reaction is the opposite, to rejoice in the sufferings
of one’s enemy; this ritual calls us to confront the moral
implications of believing that all people are “b’tzelem Elohim,” or
made in the Image of God.

Many modern Haddagot provide commentary or alternative readings for
the traditional plagues, often reframing the Biblical story in terms
of modern problems, such as pollution, deforestation, war, famine, and
other social and environmental causes of suffering. The desire to
connect the moral worldview of the traditional Seder ritual with
conditions in the modern world is exactly the goal, but to me, naming
“modern plagues” which diminish our cup of joy sometimes misses a
crucial point, which is that the traditional “ten plagues” caused
suffering to others in order to bring liberation to the Israelites. In
other words, in naming the plagues, we remind ourselves that something
which was good for us had a cost to somebody else. It might have been
a cost demanded by justice, but the suffering of the Egyptians, as
portrayed in the Biblical account, was real and worthy of remembrance.

With that in mind, I’d propose that any naming of “modern plagues” be
oriented towards reminding Seder participants that one person’s
freedom may be another person’s suffering. For example, North
Americans enjoy the opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables,
flowers, and meats produced abroad, often under brutal labor and
environmental conditions; our luxury is somebody else’s suffering. Our
freedom to drive as much as we like “drives” a world market in oil
with obvious connections to huge political, military, and
environmental problems. Even the clothes on my back may have been
produced in a sweatshop eerily similar to conditions of slavery – and
of course, the meat on many Pesach tables came from animals raised and
slaughtered under conditions which should cause anyone to stop and
think about the cost of their comfort.

Seen this way, the Seder ritual of spilling the wine is a profound
moment of introspection and conscience, confronting each of us with
the reality that in a rapidly globalizing world, one person can never
be disconnected from the systems which literally enslave others and
distress our planet. The good news is that it’s in the celebration of
our freedom that we find the courage to change our ways and work for
social and environmental justice- such freedom is truly something to
celebrate.

Hag Sameach,
RNJL

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