This seems like about the right time to bring your attention to So Called, a Jewish DJ whose So Called Seder is an astonishing blending of weird old Jewish recordings and performances by a range of fashionable musicians — Killa Priest of the Wu Tang Clan, Trevor Dunn of Mr. Bungle and Chassidic ragamuffin Matisyahu the most prominent among them — into a powerful if gestural retelling of the Haggadah. (MP3s can be found at Brooklyn Vegan.)
Despite the strenuous efforts of modern Jewish movements to sanitize the story of Pesach (Passover) into a parable of universal liberation, I find the traditional story — told for at least the last thousand years — to be quite different: a specific narrative of a specific war in which a specific oppressor is overthrown and his land laid waste. Indeed, much of the emphasis is on a detailed recounting of how severely the Egyptians are brutalized:
Rabbi Yosi the Gallilean said: How do you know that the Egyptians were stricken by ten plagues in Egypt, and then were struck by fifty plagues at the sea?
In Egypt it says of them, “The magicians said to Pharaoh ‘This is the finger of G-d.’ At the sea it says, “Israel saw the great hand that the L-rd laid against Egypt; and the people feared the L-rd, and they believed in the L-rd and in His servant Moses.”
Now, how often were they smitten by ‘the finger’? Ten plagues!
Thus you must conclude that in Egypt they were smitten by ten plagues, at the sea they were smitten by fifty plagues!
Rabbi Eliezer said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues?
For it is said: “He sent against them His fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil”: ‘Fury,’ is one; ‘Indignation,’ makes two; ‘Trouble,’ makes three; ‘Discharge of messengers of evil,’ makes four.
Thus you must now say that in Egypt they were struck by forty plagues, and at the sea they were stricken by two hundred plagues.
Rabbi Akiva said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues?
For it is said: “He sent against them his fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil”: ‘His fierce anger,’ is one; ‘fury,’ makes two; ‘indignation,’ makes three; ‘trouble,’ makes four; ‘discharge of messengers of evil,’ makes five. Thus you must now say that in Egypt they were struck by fifty plagues, and at the sea they were stricken by two hundred and fifty plagues.
In a beautiful track on the Hip-Hop Haggadah, a woman sings in a plaintive voice, over and over, “When Moses was in Egypt land / Let my people go.” But what is truly haunting is her very last line as the roiling track comes to a close: she trails off with, “At night I’ll kill your firstborn son …”
That’s not liberation. It’s murder. Pesach is a holiday that remembers the brutality of war while insisting that sometimes the innocent must be tortured and killed for the sake of a greater cause. It’s a celebration of victory, but also a remembrance of deep suffering by all the parties in the conflict. It’s a stark reminder that the journey to the Promised Land begins with darkness, rivers of blood and the bread of affliction.