How Do I Destroy You?
Let me count the plagues

Adapted from Seder Interrupted: A Post October 7 Haggadah Supplement
By Beth Steinberg

The Haggadah has many dramatic storytelling moments, one being the recitation of the ten plagues, a fearful list of afflictions and horrors witnessed and experienced by the Egyptians. The Children of Israel, while saved from the personal suffering caused by the plagues, had to have seen the hardship of the Egyptians, before miraculously exiting the scene for their 40-year sojourn in the desert. And what they missed in Goshen, because the plagues didn’t happen there, they certainly saw firsthand during the crossing of the Red Sea, as the Egyptian Army chased them into the sea and drowned in front of them, in perhaps the final and most violent plague of them all. 

Dramatic, but not so easy to take in and absorb. 

How did the Children of Israel feel about the Egyptians’ pain and suffering throughout the period of the plagues, starting with the bloodied Nile River, which had to be terrifying to everyone in Egypt? The plagues continued on to frogs and crop-destroying hail, culminating in fearful darkness so thick and scary that you couldn’t see your hand, and the horrific deaths of first-born Egyptian children. Or, were they so astounded by G-d’s wrath and power, a power with which they weren’t that familiar during 400 years of slavery, that they were cowed and fearful, or vengeful and even angry over the calamitous events?

The ten plagues, and the long-term effects which they must have had, including crop and cattle collapse which surely must have led to financial instability for rank and file Egyptians, then followed by ill health from boils, vermin, and the death of the first born children, always seemed like more than enough punishment for the Egyptian people. 

During the reading of the Haggadah, the recitation of the plagues are accompanied by dipping one’s finger into wine, one dip for each plague, a sort of ritual bloodletting to accompany the violence that the plagues begot. That retelling is followed by Rabbi Yehuda’s acrostic, a seemingly playful but nonsensical way of remembering the plagues. 

“רַבִּי יְהוּדָה הָיָה נוֹתֵן בָּהֶם סִמָּנִים: דְּצַ”ךְ עַדַ”שׁ בְּאַחַ”ב”

“Rabbi Yehuda was accustomed to giving [the plagues] mnemonics: Detsakh [the Hebrew initials of the first three plagues], Adash [the Hebrew initials of the second three plagues], Beachav [the Hebrew initials of the last four plagues].” (Haggadah, Sefaria Edition used throughout this article.)

Really? We need an acrostic to remember those ten punishing plagues visited on the Egyptians? 

Maaseh Nissim, the 18th-century commentary by Polish scholar Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum asks the question, “What purpose is served in grouping the plagues together in this fashion, and abbreviating them?” He explains that each acrostic group is a subset of the ten plagues, ”with the final plague [in each group] a climax” to those that preceded them, in theory to teach a particular lesson, working up to the last grouping, Ba’achav – hail, locusts, darkness, the death of the first born – acknowledging that the plagues weren’t “…just chance or a product of the astrological signs (Mazel), but the actual hand of G-d.” 

Rabbi Yehuda makes it clear: the plagues were both fearsome and personal, a punishment meted out by G-d on the Egyptian people. The ten plagues are then followed by a famous game of numbers, a sort of Haggadic gematria, where words and phrases are assigned numeric values and special powers. Rabbi Yosi Haglili, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva outdo themselves proving that each of the plagues is really a multiple plague representing G-d’s strength, might, and anger.  (From the Sefaria Haggadah)

Rabbi Yosi speaks of the hand and finger of G-d, saying, “You can say from here that in Egypt, they were struck with ten plagues and at the Sea, they were struck with fifty plagues.” 

אֱמוֹר מֵעַתָּה: בְּמִצְרַים לָקוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים מַכּוֹת

Rabbi Eliezer builds on this idea of G-d’s anger, wrath and fury, saying, “You can say from here that in Egypt, they were struck with forty plagues and at the Sea, they were struck with two hundred plagues.” 

אֱמוֹר מֵעַתָּה: בְּמִצְרַיִם לָקוּ אַרְבָּעִים מַכּוֹת וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ מָאתַיִם מַכּוֹת

Finally, Rabbi Akiva takes G-d’s anger the furthest, saying that each plague was a multiple of five, “He sent upon them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and fury, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil. ‘The fierceness of His anger’ [corresponds to] one; ‘wrath’ [brings it to] two; ‘and fury’ [brings it to] three; ‘and trouble’ [brings it to] four; ‘a sending of messengers of evil’ [brings it to] five. You can say from here that in Egypt, they were struck with fifty plagues and at the Sea, they were struck with two hundred and fifty plagues.” 

 יְִשַׁלַּח־בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ, עֶבְרָה וָזַעַם וְצַרָה, מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים. חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ – אַחַת, עֶבְרָה – שְׁתָּיִם, וָזַעַם – שָׁלוֹשׁ, וְצָרָה – אַרְבַּע, מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים – חָמֵשׁ. אֱמוֹר מֵעַתָּה: בְּמִצְרַיִם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים מַכּות וְעַל הַיָּם לָקוּ חֲמִשִּׁים וּמָאתַיִם מַכּוֹת

This year, I read this section with dread, thinking of the murderous rage wrought upon Israel on October 7th. Hamas’s messenger’s of evil unleashed fierce anger, wrath, and fury on innocent Israeli civilians, on soldiers cowering in their beds, on lovers of music taking cover in bomb shelters or hiding in fields, on families in their safe rooms. How many plagues were visited on those caught up in the bloodlust on October 7th? 

Hamas’s messengers of evil incited their own, Gazan civilians, to join their murderous rampage – a plague for sure. They left those who sheltered at home unprotected – another plague – without the food, water, and physical protection needed to survive the obvious wrath of a country invaded by a neighboring enemy, its citizenry plundered, living people taken as hostage, dead bodies taken as war booty. The plagues of war that followed, along with injury, death and destruction, for Gazans, and for Israeli families who’ve lost loved ones on October 7th and onward, from rocket fire, or as family members of soldiers defending their homeland, have multiplied the pain felt by so many. 

Plagues, plagues, and more plagues. How many plagues really? Who can count them? 

The emotional, physical and existential pain of knowing that peace or something akin to living as neighbors seems more elusive than ever? It’s a plague to be sure. Of many multiples. 

 “A plague o’ both your house,” says Mercutio, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, right before he dies, struck down in a swordfight that didn’t have to happen. He curses both houses, Montague and Capulet, instead of preaching reconciliation. Sadly, in that story, it takes more death and sadness before the families find their way forward. 

This Pesach, as we read through the plagues, let’s talk through their anger, along with the pain of this year’s plagues, pain that for many is still part of their lives and may continue to be so. Can we follow the plague of loss with healing-talk and trusting-talk – between ourselves as a Jewish community divided, and beyond our communal borders, to those enemies of our people. Only then, as a people who pray for peace, can we find the bravery needed to overcome these endless plagues of violence, of wrath, and of hatred. Bravery is the only way towards talking together, crying together, and yes, making peace together.

Looking for more ideas for deepening your Passover Seder conversations? Take a look at Seder Interrupted: A Post October 7 Haggadah Supplement, published by the Academy for Jewish Religion. Order it on Amazon, or download for free on the AJR website.