Sometimes the most thought-provoking questions aren’t posed by our writers, but rather, by our readers. And so it was that last week, after Kveller posted on Facebook about a free Passover giveaway of nail decals illustrated with pictures of the 10 plagues that one reader commented, “I was just wondering if I was the only one who thinks death and destruction aren’t cute…Which finger should we put the dead babies on?”
There isn’t anything at all funny about the 10 plagues. But in defense of the nail decals and their creator, Rabbi Yael Buechler, the intention of Midrash Manicures is to “combine Jewish education and creative nail art to make Torah more meaningful to you.” We know Rabbi Buechler’s heart is in the right place.
But our reader makes a good point and raises a good question. There are parts of Jewish history that tell of a less than compassionate god (think of the death of Haman and all of his sons–plus 75,000 other non-Jews in the Purim story, think of God’s decimation of the cities of Sodom and Gemmorah, think of the zealotry and murder sprees of the Maccabees).
Now, one might argue that all of this history is open to interpretation and that history is certainly murky, and one would be right. And there are lots of very interesting interpretations for understanding why God might allow such suffering (Rabbi Jill Jacobs offers a bunch here).
But the question doesn’t change: How do we respond to and engage with these really difficult parts of our own history? How do we teach our kids not to hate, and even, to feel compassion for those who hated us? How do we teach our kids that we don’t celebrate anyone’s death, even when they’re also taught to hate Haman and Pharaoh?
It’s true that we spill wine from our glasses as we recite the 10 plagues in an attempt to acknowledge the devastation that befell the Egyptian people and take away from some of our own enjoyment. But is that enough? At our seder table, we also play with rubber frogs and wear locust masks to get the kids excited about the Passover story. That sends a questionable message, too.
My kids don’t understand nuance yet (they don’t understand why they can’t eat cookies all day and night, either). But one day they will, and one day we will explain the 10 plagues to them and their eyes will widen and they will be a little bit scared and it is my hope that they will wonder at this really brutal part of our history.
And so I turn to you, dear readers. How do you explain the 10 plagues to your kids? Do you have a shpiel at the seder that you’re willing to share? And further, do you think it’s okay to allow kids to playfully recreate the seder story, complete with nail decals of the 10 plagues?
Where is the limit? When do we say, dayenu–enough with war and death and destruction. Kids need to understand that suffering is suffering, regardless of which side you’re on. How do we make sure they get it?