I’ve survived cancer, and every day I thank God for that miracle. It was a grueling, scary, and painful experience. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Cancer is one of the most devastating plagues of our time. There are others, to be sure, and as we approach Passover, I’ve been thinking about how we remember the plagues of the past and how we will memorialize modern plagues sometime in the future.
Let me explain: For years, I’ve been adding shtick after creative shtick to our seders, including what we do for the 10 plagues. We wear finger puppets and masks; we sing about the plagues in Hebrew, English, and rhyme; we turn the water red and toss Styrofoam balls of hail while wearing sunglasses. We make the plagues fun, cute, memorable, and meaningful, but most of all, silly.
Fast-forward 50 years, when God willing cancer is eradicated, or at least cured with a pill. What if Jews sit around a Passover seder table with finger puppets, masks, and cute ditties about the plagues of the past century? Will it ever be OK to make light of cancer and the other atrocities that currently plague us? Can you imagine being so removed from suicide bombers and school shootings that we will ever sing about them?
I pray we will see a day without these modern plagues, though today that day still seems far away. But when that day comes, after all of the pain we have endured, I don’t believe we will be able to sing about these plagues and to make light of their impact on our lives. So how can we do this to the plagues in Egypt?
This year, after surviving my own plague, I want to acknowledge the plagues in Egypt, have a sensible conversation about today’s plagues, and move on. Instead of dwelling on the sorrow we brought to the Egyptians of the past, I want to focus on tomorrow, on what we can do for all people of the future.
But of course, the seder is about having fun, keeping the kids engaged, and encouraging everyone to ask questions. So in honor of the 10 plagues, here are 10 ways to make the plagues interesting yet respectful:
1. Explore new languages. Learn to say the names of the 10 plagues in as many languages as you can.
2. List 10 modern plagues. Gun violence. Suicide bombers. Poverty. Sex trafficking. Homelessness. Terrorism. Hunger. Global warming. War. (Just to name a few.)
3. Get political. This is the perfect year to list the top 10 plagues of each presidential candidate’s run for the White House.
4. Focus on feelings. Pick just one or two of the plagues in Egypt and discuss what it might have felt like to experience that particular plague.
5. Study science. What could these plagues really have been? Are there any historical records of swarms of locusts or a terrible cattle disease?
6. Count your blessings. Instead of 10 plagues, share 10 good things in the world today, or 10 blessings celebrated by your family and those gathered around your seder table.
7. Do something. Pick a modern plague and pledge to come back together after Passover to help (for instance, serve in a soup kitchen or make blankets for cancer patients).
8. Talk about 10. The number 10 is significant in Jewish tradition. Talk about some other 10s (commandments or number of people needed for a minyan, for instance). Do you think 10 was a magical breaking point for Pharaoh (or was it the nature of the 10th plague that finally broke him)?
9. Take 10 deep breaths. That’s right, pause and breathe, right in the middle of the seder! We are so lucky to be alive, to be sharing in this special occasion, and to be learning about our history. The plagues represent a great loss of life, so take a few moments to be so grateful for the lives we have.
10. Finally, return to the seder, to the traditional recitation of the 10 plagues. Some use their fingers, while others use a small spoon (so as not to be tempted to lick the wine off their fingers, thus “enjoying” a bit of the plagues). Drip 10 drops of wine from your cup and remember the plagues in Egypt.
The section of the seder that explores the 10 plagues is definitely important, interesting, and engaging, so don’t skip it. It’s OK to dwell on the plagues, but perhaps this year we’ll tone down the cutesy songs and dances and talk more about the modern plagues in our lives. May we all live to see a day when the plagues are only stories from our past!