Order in Ten Plagues
The great German rabbi and Biblical commentator (1808-1888), Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a compelling interpretation of the 10 plagues. In the Haggadah we read that Rabbi Yehuda ha’yah notayn ba’hem see’maneem, “Rabbi Yehudah used to form acronyms (of the 10 plagues) by their initials”: D’tzach, A’dash, B’ah’ch’av. Rabbi Hirsch asserts that Rabbi Yehuda’s breakdown of the plagues into three sets of three (Makkat B’chorot – the slaying of the first born is in a category of its own), is not at all arbitrary. In fact, it is based on the Brit Bayn Hab’tarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15) where G-d tells Avraham: Ya’do’ah tay’dah, “You shall surely know that your children will be gerim, exiles, in a land that is not theirs,” va’avadum, ” they will be enslaved,” v’eenu otam “and they will be persecuted,” arbah may’ot shana, “400 years.”
Rabbi Hirsch underscores the three elements of the Covenant Between the Pieces: exile, enslavement and persecution. Elaborating on the structure of the 10 plagues, Rabbi Hirsch points out that the first plague of each triplet: dam, blood, arov,wild animals, and barad, hail, always takes place at the riverside. The first plagues of each triplet represent galut, exile. Just as the Jews in Egypt experienced exile, so the Egyptians must experience exile. The Nile is no loner the Nile. The most highly identified feature of Egypt is now a river of blood. The land is overrun with wild animals. It is no longer Egypt. Suddenly this country of hot climate is stricken with barad, hail. It is no longer Egypt.
The second of each triplet, says Rabbi Hirsch, always takes place at Pharaoh’s palace. Tz’pharday’ah, frogs, deh’ver, death of the animals, and a’rbeh, locust, all represent avdut, enslavement. The Egyptians are overrun by timorous frogs who control their lives and enslave the citizens. The plague of the animals requires the Egyptians to serve as clean-up laborers. And a’rbeh, locusts, the little bugs control and in effect enslave the Egyptians.
The final plague of each triplet always takes place without any warning to Pharaoh. Kinim, lice, sh’chin, boils, and cho’shech, darkness, represent the third aspect of the Covenant Between the Pieces — physical persecution. Physical persecution from lice, boils and darkness. The darkness, as the rabbis interpret it, was so fierce that the Egyptians were literally imprisoned, and they could not physically move.
Now we understand why Rabbi Judah would break the plagues up into three categories–because the 10 plagues truly served as a fulfillment of the Covenant Between the Pieces. We also see that there is magic to the structure of the Torah — what seemed to be ten arbitrary plagues have deep and profound meaning when understood in the proper context.
Tis the night before Pesach
and all through the place
we must search for our chametz,
in every corner and space.
We’ve emptied our pockets,
and vacuumed the floor,
every inch has been dusted,
we can clean no more!
With a feather and a candle,
in the dark of the night,
we look for any chametz
that was hidden from sight.
Next day after sunrise
all the chametz must be
burned out of existence
to set ourselves free.
On Passover, Jews are commanded to get rid of all “chametz” (see definition of chametz in overview) which may be in their possession. Weeks are spent cleaning and scrubbing. To confirm the effectiveness of these efforts, a special search for chametz, called Bedikat Chametz, is held on the night before Passover.
Shortly after nightfall, Bedikat Chametz begins. The search is conducted by the light of a candle, in order to look in all the nooks and crannies (if the candle might cause danger, for instance when searching near draperies, one may use a flashlight). It is also customary to “sweep” the chametz away with a feather.
Before the search begins, the following blessing is recited:
Baruch atah Ado-nai, Ehlo-haynu melech Ha-olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzeevanu al Bee’oor chametz.
Blessed are you L-rd, our G-d ruler of the world, who sanctified us through His commandments and commanded us concerning the removal of chametz.
From the recitation of the blessing until the search begins, there should be no talking. Likewise, during the search, conversation should be limited to matters which pertain to the search.
Sometimes getting into the right mind frame for the search may be difficult, especially if the house has already been thoroughly cleaned for Passover. It is the custom, therefore, to carefully “hide” ten pieces of chametz (for instance 10 pieces of pretzel) in the rooms which will be searched. The search will thus be more diligent, and will not conclude until all the rooms have been checked and the 10 pieces found.
All chametz that is found should be placed safely in a bag for disposal the next morning. You may, however, put aside chametz to eat for breakfast, making sure to clean up any leftovers and to add them to the chametz bag afterwards.
When the search is over, a general declaration is made stating that any unknown chametz is hereby declared ownerless:
“Any chametz or leaven that is in my possession which I have not seen, have not
removed and do not know about, should be annulled and become ownerless,
like the dust of the earth.”
On the morning before the Seder, all chametz found during Bedikat Chametz, or left over from breakfast, is burned. In larger communities, there are often communal chametz burning barrels.
After the burning of the chametz, since the time for eating chametz has passed, we make a more comprehensive declaration nullifying ownership.
“Any chametz, or leaven, that is in my possession, whether I know about it
or not, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have removed it or not, should
be annulled and become ownerless, like dust of the earth.”
The removal and destruction of chametz is now complete.
A DEEPER LOOK AT BEDIKAT CHAMETZ
On Passover, the festival of freedom, we commemorate our liberation from slavery. In the 21st century, most people often think of freedom as a lack of restrictions and obligations. With the intensive cleaning and obligatory preparations, Passover seems to be in direct contradiction of freedom. After all, how can we be considered free, when we are obligated to “slave away” cleaning every corner of the house?
While our release from slavery occurred on Passover, the Jewish nation was not wholly free on the day they left Egypt. Although they were no longer subjugated to taskmasters, the Israelites retained the slave mentalities which they had acquired. Slavery, after all, denies a person free will. Lack of free will often causes a person to lose a sense of responsibility. Proof of this can be seen in the fact that throughout their journey in the wilderness, the Jews rebel and cry-out that it would have been better to still be slaves in Egypt! While in slavery, they did not have to choose how to act, their masters told them what to do.
Yes, the Jewish nation was redeemed from Egypt in order to be free, free to serve G-d! Thirty three centuries later, our mission has not changed. Passover is the time for setting ourselves free from that which today enslaves us. While the slavery of the 21st century is not the physical hardship we faced in Egypt, today’s bondage is even more subtle and powerful. Today many Americans are enslaved to their jobs, to money, to power and to technology.
How many Jews will miss sttending a Sedera this year because they “just couldn’t get off work” (In America, one can’t really loose his/her job for taking time off for a religious holiday!!) How many Jews are aghast at the idea of no TV, pager or cell-phone for 25 hours on Shabbat. And how many Jews balk at the idea of keeping kosher because of the fear of appearing different from others? Is this freedom?
Perhaps the root of enslavement is pride. The popular idiom of modern life, “He who has the most toys, wins,” is, unfortunately, hardly a maxim for living life to the fullest. It is probably more a means of showing superiority over others. Does anyone really need a cell-phone/pager/internet with a video screen? The human race has survived without it for millennia. But oh, to be the first one on the block to own one!
Our sages tell us that Chametz (any combination of water and flour which is allowed to ferment) represents “pride,” comparing the “puffing-up” of the dough to the “puffing-up” of the ego. We are proud of our business accomplishments, our social coups, and even our “righteousness.” Pride and arrogance, however, are allies of the evil inclination, the Yetzer Harah. When a person places too high a value on him/herself, the importance of G-d is diminished and is more likely to sin. As the holiday of our redemption approaches, we are reminded that the People of Israel attained freedom by having faith in G-d and accepting that it is G-d who ultimately runs the world and performs miracles.
Searching for chametz is symbolic of battling the evil inclination. We search every corner of our souls for pride and arrogance. It is only then, when we have labored to rid ourselves of these negative character traits, that we are able to appreciate the freedom that was given to us when we left Egypt.
The actual search, during which pieces of chametz are “hidden” in the house, reminds us that we must still search even when we think that the cleansing is complete. One should never glory in one’s “righteousness,” after all, no one is ever completely cleansed of “chametz.” Isn’t the best Jew the one who is always trying to be a better Jew?
The Jewish concept of freedom is not a world without laws. Freedom is the removal of obstacles in the path of serving G-d. Free will is G-d’s gift to humankind, but the freedom to use it properly must be learned and earned.
May you have a successful search and a joyful Passover.