As we look ahead to Pesach, there is no doubt the seder – literally meaning ‘order’ – has a magic about it.
The Haggadah, the familiar tunes, the bitter herbs, the charoset and the matzah, including the search for the Afikomen, create an evening of historical experience and family fun and generate a mysterious pull of this ancient event, which may never actually have occurred.
Nevertheless, behind the beautiful façade of the seder are two challenging theological messages.
The story of the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt includes both the “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” by God and the despatch of the 10 plagues, which traumatise and kill Egyptian children who, by any modern understanding, would be considered not merely ‘collateral damage’ but innocent victims.
It is not simple to explain these phenomena in a 21st-century context, but perhaps they remind us that even when our cause is right we are required to act in a manner which brings a sense of proportion and indeed regret concerning those who fall victim to our just conduct.
The second aspect lies in the fact that this complex Hebrew story – known elsewhere as the Exodus motif – has been used by many oppressed people in the hope that God is on the side of those who are in difficulty.
I recall reflecting once that in a war, chaplains are seconded to both armies and presumably have an investment in their own side being victorious.
This double conundrum leads to a further, more important, theological message about the partnership between God and humanity, reminding us that the advance of humanity – in this particular case represented by the Hebrew slaves – is possible only when both God and human beings play a role.
υ Danny Rich is senior rabbi of Liberal Judaism