The Passover Haggadah challenges us not just to remember the pain of slavery and the joy of freedom, but to relive the journey from one state to the other: “In each generation, every individual should feel as though he or she had gone out of Egypt.” How can we achieve that?
The Haggadah contains the answer in a simple phrase: “Whoever elaborates upon the story of the Exodus deserves praise!”
In that spirit, here’s an idea for a discussion to help bring the saga of the Exodus to life. If possible, conduct this activity in a room other than the dining room, before you sit down at the table. For those who haven’t tried it, you’d be amazed at how much easier it is to engage people when you’re not sitting at the seder table.
Here’s the background: It’s the Israelites’ last night in Egypt, the night of the final plague, the slaying of the Egyptian first born. (Note: Sources are divided as to whether this plague targeted only males or included females as well.) When the Egyptians learned about this fearful plague, some Egyptian mothers decided to seek refuge for their firstborn in the houses of Israelites. Imagine the Israelites, sitting safely in their homes, and suddenly there’s a knock at the door and an Egyptian mother is pleading for the life of her firstborn.
Should the Israelites take in the Egyptian firstborn?
This works very well as a simple drama. Choose someone to be a door; he or she simply stands in the middle of the room with arms outstretched parallel to the floor. Ask a few people to stand on one side of the door and play the part of the Egyptian mothers begging to save the lives of their firstborn. Ask others to be on the other side of the door and play the role of Israelites. Since Israelites don’t always agree with one another, some should argue for and others against letting in the Egyptians.
If you have lots of people at your seder, you can either let people participate in the drama from the “audience” or ask anyone with something to say to join the drama on one side of the door or the other. Remind everyone that these are matters of life and death, so amplifying the drama and emotion are fine. Arguments based on any historical periods are welcome.
Feel free to allow questions about the morality of the last plague. Also remember that Exodus 12:22 says that the Israelites should not leave their homes until morning. The Bible says nothing about whether or not to let others in or to keep the door closed.
When the drama has ended, ask your group to vote: Are you letting in the Egyptians or not?
Now share the following midrash (Exodus Rabbah 18:2) with the group. It was written down about a thousand years ago, but is probably based on a more ancient source. Before reading the short text, you might ask your guests to vote again about whether they think that in the midrash the Israelites take in the Egyptians or not.
When the Egyptians heard that God would strike down their firstborn, some were afraid and some were not. Those who were afraid brought their firstborn to an Israelite and said, “Please allow him to pass this night with you.” At midnight, God smote all the firstborn. As for those who took asylum in the houses of the Israelites, God passed between the Israelites and the Egyptians, killing the Egyptians and leaving Israelites alive. Upon waking at midnight, the Jews found the Egyptians dead among their surviving firstborn.
The midrash seems to suggest that independent of whatever divine plan may ultimately unfold, on earth we have a responsibility to act in accordance with human moral codes that stress the importance of saving human lives. In this light you might want to consider these questions: Have we stood idly by the blood of our neighbors (Leviticus 19:16)? Have we remembered to “know the heart of the stranger because [we] were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9)? Have we used our memories of suffering and persecution—in Egypt and elsewhere—to nurture vengeance or to remember our responsibility to create a better world?
David Arnow is the author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders, 2nd Edition: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities” and co-editor of “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries,” both published by Jewish Lights Publishing.