On Passover, Water, and Earth Day… and How it All Connects

I learned a bit about water at my seder. Turns out water is a big deal– for better and for worse.

Which, of course, we already know. The Nile plays a huge role in the Passover story —the death of Israelite boys; the rescue of baby Moses; the meetings with Pharaoh by the river. Water-based plagues are inflicted upon Egypt; frogs emerge from the Nile; fire-breathing hailstones fall from the sky; and of course the water supply of Egypt turns entirely to blood. Upon leaving Egypt, the Israelites immediately complain about lack of water, a complaint that 40 years later causes Moses’ ultimate downfall. And of course, the splitting of the Red Sea remains arguably the most dramatic event in the Bible.

The Rabbis (of the first centuries CE), quoted in the Haggadah, pick up on the last of these especially. In perhaps the strangest passage of the traditional seder, Rabbis Yossi, Eliezer and Akiva argue about how many plagues were inflicted upon the Egyptians at the Red Sea (in addition to the famous 10 in Egypt). Drawing on the Rabbinic form of biblical exegesis, Rabbi Yossi proposes 50, Rabbi Eliezer sees him and raises to 200, and Rabbi Akiva closes claiming that no less than 250 plagues struck the Egyptians at the sea. The whole argument has the ring of a merciless posthumous extended Egypt-bashing.

Vengeance and a thirst for the destruction of enemies may indeed be motivating these rabbis. But, as someone at my seder pointed out, this passage in the Haggadah itself does not express any opinion of the rabbis. If anything, the setting of the passage is ambiguous, appearing directly after we traditionally mourn the infliction of the 10 Plagues upon the Egyptians by removing wine from our glasses for each plague suffered by an Egyptian. Perhaps the rabbis, in the context of the seder, are pointing out how much more we must actually mourn for the humiliation and destruction of the Egyptians. Whether in joy, horror or sadness, the rabbis clearly up the ante at the Red Sea.  What occurred there was not merely one event, or the culmination of ten; rather the hundreds of plagues we do not see as the worst of disasters strike are even more devastating than those on the surface.

Which, of course, we already know.  Because water is powerful, dramatic and intense. The splitting of the Red Sea is only half of the drama: the drowning of the Egyptians is the other half.

Someone asked at my seder: “What would a modern-day Plague look like? Something that would cause us actually to change our behavior or beliefs?” The immediate responses: Japan. Katrina.  Water-saturated moments and images that remain in our minds as the worst kinds of natural destruction. The 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia. The 2010 flooding in Pakistan.  Water that preys upon needlessly undeveloped and neglected conditions in the Global South. The BP oil spill. Even man-made plagues are intensified by water.

These are waters we only wish would have been split for us. These are waters, like those at the Red Sea, that lead to hundreds of indirect plagues for each direct one: homelessness, loss, hunger, crime, gender-based violence, intensified racial or sexual discrimination, psychological trauma, lack of social services, lack of infrastructure, helplessness.

Sometimes it is not the power of overflowing water but its absence that is a true Plague, as the first sign of God’s might turned the waters of Egypt into undrinkable blood. Today is Earth Day, and exactly a month ago we observed World Water Day, to raise awareness about water rights and resources worldwide.

At our meals throughout the year we are blessed to take water for granted, a foreign concept for many of our neighbors in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa in drought-prone areas. Our access to clean, disease-free water is unimpeded by lack of long-term post-disaster development–as it is in Haiti–or by the neglect of multinational corporations–as it is in India.

Which, of course, we already know. So let’s do something about it.

Modern egalitarian tradition suggests that a cup of water be placed on the seder table to welcome Miriam the Prophetess, as the traditional cup of wine is placed for Elijah the Prophet. I thought, “I know that water refers to the tradition that a well followed the Israelites in the desert because of the virtue of Miriam–but still, water? Does that really put Miriam on equal footing with Elijah? Is water really as important–joyous, dangerous, life-affirming, precious – as wine?”