March 22, 2013
For your seder table
The following text is excerpted from “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by Edgar Bronfman with illustrations by Jan Aronson (Rizzoli, 2012).
NARRATOR: Four hundred years before the Exodus, a Hebrew named Joseph lived in the land of Egypt. Originally from Canaan, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. His extraordinary ability to interpret dreams eventually won his freedom and rose to prominence in Egypt.
NARRATOR: When a severe famine ravaged the area, Joseph reconciled with his brothers and brought his extended family from Canaan, settling them in Goshen, one of Egypt’s most fertile regions. As Joseph’s brilliant rationing strategies spared Egypt the worst of the famine, he was revered by the Egyptians.
NARRATOR: This love extended to his tribe — the Hebrews, or Israelites. But hundreds of years later, a Pharaoh came to power who didn’t know of Joseph and his legacy. And this Pharaoh feared the Israelites’ numbers.
PHARAOH: Our land teems with Israelites! Should war break out, they could easily side with the enemy. We must keep them from multiplying!
NARRATOR: So Pharaoh assigned two Hebrew midwives — Shiprah and Puah — with the terrible task of killing all the Hebrew boy babies at birth. But the midwives thwarted Pharaoh’s order.
NARRATOR: So Pharaoh set taskmasters over the Israelites, hoping to deplete their vigor with hard labor. Still, the Hebrew population swelled. Furious, Pharaoh ordered his soldiers to find every firstborn Hebrew boy and cast him into the Nile.
NARRATOR: Now there was a Hebrew mother named Jocheved. Often she’d seen Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants bathe in a pool sheltered by reeds. So Jocheved, with her daughter Miriam, set to work, daubing a bulrush basket with pitch and clay. With the watertight basket, they set off for the pool. Once there, they placed the little ark among the reeds.
NARRATOR: Unable to watch her child be claimed by another, Jocheved returned to Goshen. But Miriam stayed behind, wanting to know her baby brother’s fate. Soon Pharaoh’s daughter came to the river. When she spotted the basket, she commanded a servant to draw it from the water. Looking down at the little face, her heart filled with compassion for what she quickly realized was a Hebrew infant, most likely hidden by a desperate mother. She turned to one of her servants.
PRINCESS: My baby needs a wet nurse. Find one!
NARRATOR: Miriam stepped out from hiding.
MIRIAM: I know a woman who can nurse your baby.
PRINCESS: Well, go then and fetch her!
NARRATOR: Miriam hastened to Jocheved and told her what happened. And Jocheved suckled the baby, whom the princess named Moses — a common Egyptian name, but one that in Hebrew means “drawn from the water.”
NARRATOR: Moses grew up with Pharaoh’s son. They played together, rode horses together, and were like brothers. But Moses often felt a strange longing — especially when he watched the Hebrews toiling under the scorching sun, forced to build the treasure cities of Ramses and Pithom. The feeling deepened until one day when, as a whip whistled over the back of an elderly Hebrew, it erupted.
MOSES: Stop! You must stop!
NARRATOR: When the slave driver ignored Moses’ command, Moses killed him and hid the body in the sand. But one of Pharaoh’s men witnessed the killing. When he learned of it, Pharaoh shouted:
PHARAOH: Find Moses! He must be punished!
NARRATOR: But Moses had already escaped. He was now sojourning in the desert, seeking a home far from the tyranny and temples of Egypt. When he reached a place called Midian, he married a young woman named Zipporah — daughter of Jethro, a priest and shepherd. And Zipporah bore him two sons, and Moses dwelt with his family in Midian for many years.
NARRATOR: One day, while tending Jethro’s flock, Moses found himself at the foot of Mount Horeb, also known as Sinai. A bush was shimmering with fire, though its leaves and branches were not consumed. Suddenly an otherworldly voice boomed:
GOD: (VOICE IN THE BURNING BUSH) Moses, come no closer and remove your sandals — you stand on holy ground.
MOSES: Who are you?
GOD: I am the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As you’ve been living your simple shepherd’s life, I’ve watched my people suffering in Egypt. Unable to bear their bitter bondage, they have been crying out to me. So you must go, Moses, down to Egypt — and bring them to this mountain. After this, you will lead them to Canaan — the large and lovely land I promised your ancestors.
MOSES: No one will believe I am your messenger. My tongue is slow and my speech is not eloquent. My words will rally no one!
GOD: Fear not, Moses. What is that in your hand?
MOSES: A shepherd’s rod.
GOD: Cast it on the ground.
NARRATOR: Moses cast his rod down. Instantly it turned into a serpent. God then told him to grasp the serpent by the tail. At his touch, the snake turned back into a rod.
GOD: Now, Moses, slip your hand into your cloak and remove it.
NARRATOR: Moses obeyed. When he withdrew his hand, he gasped. His healthy flesh was now white and flaky as snow. At God’s command, Moses slipped his hand back into his bosom. When he removed it his scaly flesh had been restored to health.
GOD: If the people do not believe these signs and wonders, there will be others. And do not fear your slow speech. Your brother Aaron will serve as your spokesperson.
NARRATOR: So Moses and his family set off for Egypt. Halfway there, he met Aaron. When the two brothers reached Egypt, they arranged for a meeting with Pharaoh. Speaking on behalf of Moses, Aaron said:
AARON: Our God commands you to release his people so they can honor him with a three-day feast in the wilderness.
PHARAOH: Who is this god of yours? And why should I let my slaves worship him? They worship me alone! What can your god do that I cannot do myself?
NARRATOR: Moses threw down his rod and it turned into a serpent. But when Moses grasped the snake, it stiffened back into a rod.
PHARAOH: Nothing but a cheap trick. My magicians can do the same!
NARRATOR: Pharaoh summoned his magicians and commanded them to throw down their rods. They changed into small snakes. In the next moment, the larger snake of Moses swallowed the magicians’ serpents.
NARRATOR: But Pharaoh was unimpressed and refused to let the Hebrews go. Instead, he increased their burdens, withholding the straw they needed to bind the bricks. God then instructed Aaron to stretch his shepherd’s staff over the streams, the rivers, and the ponds of Egypt.
NARRATOR ONE: When Aaron did so, the waters turned to blood — even the water in the stone and wooden vessels turned to blood. Miraculously, the water in the slave province of Goshen remained pure. Still, Pharaoh refused to let the Hebrews go. God then said to Aaron:
GOD: Stretch your staff once more over Egypt’s rivers, canals, and ponds!
NARRATOR: As Aaron did so, thousands of frogs leaped up and hopped through Egypt, entering the dwellings of royalty and commoners alike. They wiggled between the bedding, they sprang into the cooking pots, and they filled up the urns, temple bowls, and kneading troughs. The only place free of frogs was Goshen, home of the Hebrew slaves.
NARRATOR: When the Egyptian people became ill, Pharaoh had no choice but to summon Moses and Aaron back to his court.
PHARAOH: If your god removes these frogs, I will allow your people to make their three-day feast in the wilderness.
NARRATOR: So God caused the frogs to die. The Egyptians heaped them into enormous piles and set them ablaze. A terrible stench hovered over the land. But the moment the foul odor died away, Pharaoh withdrew his offer.
GOD: Moses, say to Aaron: Stretch out your rod and strike the dust of the land!
NARRATOR: Aaron did as commanded, and instantly the dust turned to lice. And the lice burrowed into the hair of humans and the fur of beasts. The Egyptian magicians attempted the same, but their powers were too weak. Afraid, the Egyptian magicians pleaded with Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.
NARRATOR: When Pharaoh dismissed their pleas, God unleashed clouds of winged pestilence. And the buzzing clouds of gnats and midges and flies covered Egypt, causing the people to wail in misery. Only the Hebrews were spared. Pharaoh summoned Moses.
PHARAOH: Tell your god to remove this scourge! If he does, I will release his people.
NARRATOR: Again, Pharaoh reneged on his promise. And God had no choice but to send more plagues. First, wild beasts ravaged the land, and then disease killed all of Egypt’s cattle.
NARRATOR: After that, boils bubbled up on the bodies of the Egyptians, and then hail the size of fists battered the fruit trees, breaking their boughs; only Goshen’s trees were spared. And when the hail hit the ground, it burst into flame, and the fire ran in rivulets through the city streets — except for the streets of Goshen.
NARRATOR: Yet Pharaoh’s heart remained stubborn; he refused to let the Hebrews go. So God blackened the sky with locusts. And the ravenous insects devoured every leaf and growing plant — other than those in Goshen. Facing mass starvation, Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron.
PHARAOH: If your god crushes these locusts, I will let your people go!
NARRATOR: Moses implored God to remove the locusts from Egypt. God obliged, sending a stiff wind that swept all the locusts into the sea. As before, Pharaoh failed to honor his promise.
NARRATOR: At God’s command, Moses and Aaron stretched their hands to the heavens, causing a dense fog to roll across Egypt. The darkness was so thick it could be felt on the skin; the only gleam of light was in the slave quarters of Goshen. Terrified, Pharaoh called out to Moses and Aaron:
PHARAOH: Remove this suffocating darkness! If you do, you can take your people out of Egypt — though you must leave all your flocks and herds behind!
NARRATOR: But Moses refused to leave without the Hebrews’ livestock.
PHARAOH: Then you and your accursed people will never leave! Now go away from me! I cannot bear the sight of your face!
NARRATOR: Moses returned to God, who revealed to him the awful details of the tenth and final plague.
GOD: In ten days’ time, every firstborn male in Egypt will die at midnight. Not one will escape — neither the firstborn of Pharaoh nor the firstborn of the prisoner in the dungeon. And a loud cry will resound throughout Egypt — a cry that has never been heard or will ever be heard again.
But I will spare your children, Moses, and the children of your people. Tell the Israelites to slaughter an unblemished lamb. Then, with brushes of hyssop, instruct them to daub the lamb’s blood on their doorposts and lintels. Seeing these markings, the Angel of Death will pass over them.
Ever afterward, this day shall be celebrated as a memorial. And this memorial shall be called Passover, and each generation shall tell the next how their ancestors were delivered from bondage in Egypt. And you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord.
NARRATOR: Everything happened as God foretold. At midnight, the cries of mothers and fathers resounded throughout the towns and cities of Egypt. His own son destroyed, his will crushed, Pharaoh cried to Moses:
PHARAOH: Begone, Moses! And take your wretched people. And take the cattle and sheep you’ve so unjustly demanded! Go from here and never return!
NARRATOR: Fearful that Pharaoh would change his mind, the Israelites hastily prepared to leave, not even waiting for the bread in their kneading troughs to rise. And thus the Hebrews departed — six hundred thousand strong. And they journeyed far from the borders of Egypt, toward Canaan — the promised land of milk and honey. By day, they were guided by a whirling pillar of cloud; by night, a brilliant column of fire.
But Pharaoh’s heart hardened again, as did the hearts of his courtiers.
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: Why have you done this? Why have you released our slaves?
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: How will we till our land?
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: How will we feed our people?
EGYPTIAN COURTIER: We are ruined!
NARRATOR: Aware of the folly he’d committed, Pharaoh commanded his generals:
PHARAOH: Bring them back — every single one!
NARRATOR TWO: The Egyptian troops sped after the fleeing Hebrews. Soon the Israelites, camped on the shore of the sea, could hear the rumble of the approaching chariot wheels. They cried to Moses:
ISRAELITE: We are trapped! We will be killed!
ISRAELITE: Why have you taken us from Egypt just to die in the wilderness?
ISRAELITE: He is right! Better to have remained slaves in Egypt!
ISRAELITE: You have not led us to freedom — you’ve led us to death!
MOSES: Fear not. Stand still, and see what God shall do for you.
NARRATOR: Moses then stretched out his rod, causing an easterly wind to blow. With Egypt’s militia bearing down fast, an Israelite named Nahshon broke from the crowd and boldly stepped into the sea. The wind stirred up the water, heaping it into two growing walls with a wide, dry path running in between. The Israelites followed Nahshon across the divided sea.
NARRATOR: The Egyptian army soon charged behind. But Moses did not panic. It was only when his people had reached the other side that he stretched his rod again, making the walls of water to roll back into place. For a few minutes, the Egyptian troops floundered in the waves. But quickly they were covered, and their cries were heard no more.
NARRATOR: Moses’ sister Miriam rushed to the shore. As her tambourine jingled, she joyously sang:
MIRIAM: Who is like you, O God, among the gods? You triumphed gloriously; throwing horse and driver into the sea!
NARRATOR: And thus Israel was out of Egypt. And all day and night the Israelites celebrated, dancing and singing, oblivious to the dangers that lay ahead. (break in storytelling)
MIRIAM’S CUP AND TEN DROPS OF WINE
LEADER: We now pause in our storytelling and turn our attention to another ritual item on our seder table. This is known as Miriam’s Cup. The item was inspired by a midrashic legend of a miraculous well that traveled with the Israelites as they trekked through the wildness. Although it is never mentioned in the Exodus narrative, it became known as Miriam’s Well. According to the midrashic account, it disappeared when Miriam died.
CELEBRANT: The purpose of Miriam’s Cup — a relatively new seder object — is to honor the Prophetess Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, along with all other women — biblical, historical, and contemporary — who have worked so tirelessly for freedom on behalf of Jews and non-Jews alike.
LEADER: Miriam’s Cup also provides us with a chance to personally honor a special woman in our lives — a mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend, or other. As we pass around Miriam’s Cup, we each add a drop of water from our glasses. As we add this drop, we reflect on the warmth and love of the special woman we’ve chosen to remember tonight. (Leader pours drop of water into Miriam’s Cup and then passes the cup to the next person; each celebrant adds a drop of water as the cup circles the table.)
CELEBRANT: At this juncture in our seder, we point out a midrash associated with the parting of the Sea of Reeds. The term “Sea of Reeds” is not a misnomer or alternative name for the Red Sea. It was a part of it, with shallow waters. While the Israelites could wade across it, the Egyptians, in their armor and their heavy chariots, drowned in it. Although the biblical account describes the Hebrews singing at the destruction of the Egyptians, the midrash tells another story.
CELEBRANT: In that version, the angels are cheering as the waters roll back into place, plunging the Egyptians to their deaths. But when God hears the angels’ rejoicing, he grows angry and admonishes them: “Stop cheering, those are my people, too.” Most of us don’t believe in angels, but this story imaginatively makes an important point: While Jewish tradition sanctions the right to self-defense, it instructs us to always celebrate life, not death — even the death of our enemies. This lovely midrash teaches us that Judaism considers all people precious.
LEADER: This concept is expressed in the traditional Passover custom of casting drops of wine from our glasses onto our plates. With a finger, we each remove ten drops — one for each plague — and cast them onto our plates. This custom expresses our aversion to the punishment meted out to the Egyptians during our ancestors’ deliverance. As long as others suffer — even our enemies — our own joy, symbolized by the wine in our glasses, is lessened.
CELEBRANT: As we perform this ritual, we reflect on the calamities plaguing our world today: the slaughter of innocents — both humans and beasts — as well as the pillaging and crowding of our planet, the plundering of our seas, the corrosive poverty, and the unjust wars. As we lessen our joy, let’s silently commit ourselves to kedoshim tehiya — the striving after godliness and righteousness. Together, we now perform this ritual. (Participants dip one finger into the wine remaining in their glasses, casting ten drops onto their plates.)
LEADER: We now finish our second cup of wine and return to our story.
NARRATOR: Week after week, the Israelites journeyed south through the blistering heat of Shur. Finally, they reached an oasis called Marah. In huge throngs, they raced to its shining pools. But the water proved bitter and they spat it out.
ISRAELITE: What shall we drink?
ISRAELITE: We shall perish of thirst!
NARRATOR: Once again, Moses called out to God. And God told him to take the limb of a tree and cast it into the pool. Moses did so, and the waters of Marah turned pure and sweet. After satisfying their thirst, the Israelites journeyed on. As long as they had food, they remained calm. But once their stores ran out, their voices rose again in anger.
ISRAELITE: Moses! What are we supposed to eat? We will die of starvation!
ISRAELITE: He is right! Better we had stayed in Egypt!
ISRAELITE: We may have been slaves, but at least we had bread!
ISRAELITE: You’ve brought us from Egypt only to kill us with hunger!
NARRATOR: With each passing day, the accusations grew stronger. Fearing the people might stone him to death, Moses called out to God. And God said:
GOD: Tell the people I will bring them meat and cause bread to rain down from the sky. And from this time forth, they will be able to gather their portion. But warn them not to gather in excess. And on the sixth day, they must gather a double portion — for the seventh day must be a day of rest.
NARRATOR: That very evening, a flock of quail flew into the camp. And the people set up nets and caught the birds easily. In the morning, the ground was dotted with sticky, wafer-like flakes that tasted like honey.
NARRATOR: The Israelites called this delicious foodstuff manna. And the pillar of cloud whirled on, leading them by day, and the pillar of fire burned brightly, guiding them by night.
NARRATOR: Finally, after forty-nine days of journeying through scorching heat and howling winds, thirst and hunger, the assembly reached the plains near Mount Sinai. Leaving his terrified people camped on the plains, Moses ascended to the smoking peak. When he returned, he held two stone tablets inscribed with the spiritual imperatives known as the Ten Commandments. (Storytelling ends.) n
Reprinted from “The Bronfman Haggadah” © Rizzoli, New York, 2012. Illustrations copyright 2012 © Jan Aronson.