Thursday, April 09, 2009

Ten Plagues

The ten plagues are scary. Last night, a young person reminded me of this. He brought it up to his parents before the seder, asking "How dare you tell this story to kids?! It's horrible!"

Now that I think of it, of course the story is horrible. When I was first learning the Passover story as a little kid, way younger than the person who brought this up last night, I had a big problem with metaphor. I took pretty much everything literally. (For example, I remember worrying that if I watched too much TV, my brains would actually rot inside my head. This was especially true of commercials. When I watched cartoons, I hid my head under the pillow during commercials so I wouldn't see too much and become stupid.) Even now, I have to remind myself that people usually don't mean exactly what they say. It makes me not very good at making small talk.

So of course, as a very literal kid, I was pretty freaked out by the Passover story. I had nightmares about being overrun by frogs, and strategized about what to do if all the water turned to blood. When you put it that way, it hardly feels like a story of liberation. So, yeah, how dare we tell this story to little children?

Last night, the brilliant and gorgeous and gifted leader of our seder had a great solution. Instead of going through the whole blow-by-blow magid, he asked folks to share our favorite parts of the story, that we draw meaning from, in no particular order and without the obligatory blood, boils, and hailstones.

Like Moses, I do not tend to speak clearly, especially without preparation, when I've had some wine, and I'm in a room full of people I respect and admire. So I listened, and learned from other people's favorite parts. Later, in the long BART ride home, I decided the ten plagues are one of my favorite parts, at least they are now that I don't take them literally.

The feeling I get about the ten plagues reminds me of something that happened in 2004, the morning after the second time it was announced that Bush would be president. I was in grad school. In class that morning, my classmates and I were in shock. Some folks sat listlessly, with faces puffy as if they'd been crying all night. Others were agitated, demanding to know what right we all had to be studying and living relatively well off of our student loans, rather than spending the next four years of our lives organizing protests in the streets.

Our professor, a generation or two our elder and a strong, grounded presence in the classroom, said, "This is awful, and we will survive it. We have survived worse, and we will survive this too." She didn't have to explain what she meant by "worse." She's a Black woman social justice activist in her 60s. We all knew she's seen some shit go down. It was a comfort that she thought we'd survive Bush. That's the same feeling I get from the ten plagues story. If we could survive the blood, locusts, wild beasts ... then I guess we'll be okay.

It's like one of those weeks where you think, if someone made an after school special about my life, it would suck, because it would be totally unbelievable that this many crises happened to one person in one week. I mean, first blood came out of the faucet, then wild beasts trampled the garden, locusts ate our food and shitted all over the pantry, now the kids have boils, and to top it all off I found a frog in my bed. A frog! And when it's all over - not the next week, but months or years later, when you've had time to recover and get some perspective on it - you think, well, I survived that, I guess I'll survive this, too.

That's what I'm taking from the ten plagues story this year. We survived the ten plagues - the epic epitome of absurd crises upon crises. And for that matter, we survived Bush. We've survived lots of things. Whatever happens next, I guess we can survive that, too.

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