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“No innocents in Egypt”: What the Seder teaches us about how to treat our enemies

Theo Silverbeck writes a poignant article about the lessons of the Seder night in Times of war


The Seder story is a simple one. It’s a story of good prevailing over evil, a comforting narrative of Jews rising up against their enemy, fighting persecution and gaining freedom. Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea seems like a simple escape: no talk of wider regional conflict, no insufferable Piers Morgan debates and no protests on college campuses. Just a few miracles from God, and we’re saved.

 

During the Seder we praise God for delivering miracle after miracle to liberate the Jews. For each and every miracle, “dayenu”, it would have been enough.

 

We sing that if God had only killed the Egyptian’s first-borns, and had not given us their wealth, that would have been enough for us to celebrate. If God had only drowned our oppressors in the sea, and not supplied our needs in the dessert for forty years, that would have been enough for us to celebrate.

 

At first glance it seems that much of Seder night is spent celebrating the brutal demise of the Egyptians, who suffered through ten horrific plagues and ended up being drowned in the Red Sea.

 

So overcome with joy in watching the Egyptians drown, Moses and the Israelites began to sing Shirat Hayam, a celebratory song of praise to God: “God, the warrior … your right hand … shatters the enemy … terror and dread descend upon them” (Exodus 15:1-18).

Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea

 

I can understand the relief and joy in eventually achieving freedom after centuries of slavery, but this violent religious imagery is still unsettling. This leads us to a reconfiguration of a question we have asked a lot lately: ‘were there any innocents in Egypt?’

 

The plagues did not just target those Egyptians that oppressed the Jews, but it targeted every Egyptian, in a sort of collective punishment. What was it like to be a lowly farmer whose crops were eaten by locusts? What was it like to be an uninvolved mother, watching her first-born son die? Throughout the entire Seder we seem to celebrate the downfall of the entire ‘evil’ Egyptian nation, with no remorse or compassion.

 

Do we not expect more from a holy man like Moses? Does a thirst for vengeance supersede the Jewish prohibition against taking innocent lives? It seems that we have got carried away: instead of celebrating and fighting for our freedom we instead dehumanise our enemy and celebrate their suffering.

 

This is NOT the message of Pesach. It may seem this way but, in fact, we are taught quite the opposite.

 

God interrupted the aforementioned Song of the Sea, saying “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying?” (Sanhedrin 3b). In a moment of intense emotion, God intervened to remind the Israelites that even though these are our enemies, who enslaved and tortured Jews for centuries, they are still human beings, and we must not celebrate their deaths and suffering.

 

If we look carefully, we can see this triumph of compassion over vengeance throughout the Seder. One interpretation of why we spill our wine when we read out the plagues is that we are diminishing our cup of joy, because our redemption came through the suffering of the Egyptians. Jews are told to “not rejoice at the downfall of the enemy” (Proverbs 24:17), but to rise above our natural human temptation for revenge. God does not allow King David to build the Temple because he is a “man of war and has blood on his hands” (Chronicles 28:3). Despite being a great leader, his murder of gentiles made him impure. God does not celebrate a military victory that has ended in the death of innocents.

 

 “Who is a hero? The one who can subdue his evil instincts” Pirkei Avot 4:1

 

This is a striking lesson for us today: in a time when our enemies launch daily attacks on Jewish people, we must overcome our vengeful instincts.

 

The victims of October 7 perfectly epitomise this heroism and can be a source of inspiration for us all. Maoz Inon, who lost both of his parents on October 7, says “My parents were people of peace … Revenge is not going to bring my parents back to life. It is not going to bring back other Israelis and Palestinians killed either. It is going to do the opposite … We must break the cycle”. This sentiment was echoed by Nova survivors Bar and Hila, who came to the UK to spread positivity and love, and “fight against those that glorify death”. Ben Kfir, also a victim of the October 7 terror, refers to the futility of revenge, saying “I lost my daughter, not my mind”.

 

Nova survivors Bar Vilker and Hila Fakliro

 

We should all learn from these unwavering commitments to compassion in the face of unimaginable suffering, and deeply admire the courage it takes to turn away from vengeance.

 

This should be a lesson to the likes of Bezalel Smotrich, who seek Palestinian suffering as a remedy for Israeli suffering. Smotrich enflamed the tensions that led to the tragic settler pogroms of the Palestinian village of Huwara, in response to the shooting of two Israelis in the area. This cannot be done in God’s name, and, as evidenced, directly opposes Jewish values. The same goes for the religious justification for any violence against innocents in Gaza, or elsewhere (e.g. references to Amalek). This is a blatant Chillul Hashem and a dire misinterpretation of Jewish teachings.

 

So, the first and more obvious lesson from the Seder story is the importance of self-defence and self-emancipation, if necessary, through force and violence.

 

The second, more subtle lesson of Seder is the emancipation of mental slavery. In response to traumatic suffering, we risk being enslaved by our hatred and a desire for vengeance against our enemies. But God teaches that even our worst enemies are still human beings, and we should not celebrate or rejoice in their death. As hard as it may be, we can take inspiration from the survivors of October 7, and free our minds from the trap of hatred and revenge.

 

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery

None but ourselves can free our minds”

-Bob Marley

Theo Silverbeck

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