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Kill the Child, Spare the Lamb

Posted on Mar 25, 2013
AP/Baz Ratner

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather around a fire as they burn leavened items in a final preparation before the Passover holiday in Jerusalem.

Sorry to be such a nudge, but as I write this before heading off to yet another in a long lifetime of Passover Seders, I still can’t get my head wrapped around this business of the plagues. Particularly that 10th plague, the one that gave the Passover holiday its name when: “On that night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn—both men and animals—and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.”

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Talk about collective guilt. According to Exodus, as summarized on, “The weeping and the wailing was not like anything ever heard in the land before.” And that’s without throwing in the disease of livestock, hail and thunder, locusts, lice, frogs, flies, water that turned to blood killing all fish, and that old standby: incurable boils. To be fair, according to the revealed truth of Wikipedia, everyone in Egypt, Israelites included, got the lice, frogs and bloody water treatment, and there is a question of just how far the locust exposure extended. Wikipedia also questions whether it was God who did the smiting or the “Angel of Death,” as some think. More research would help here, but I am already late for dinner, and no one there will be interested in my dreary take on the occasion of our freedom feast. They certainly don’t need to be bummed out by the tale of the battle between Moses and the Pharaoh’s sorcerers over who could most expeditiously make the Nile stink from the odor of dead fish.

I know this is a sensitive subject, but since even the youngest among us are supposed to raise questions at the Seder, doesn’t that vengeance from on high seem excessive? After all, the non-Israelites didn’t get to vote for the Pharaoh or otherwise offer their consent for his choice of false gods to worship, so why are innocent children being treated as collateral damage to make a fanatical religious point? Of course this is not an awkward issue for Jews alone, because the passages in Exodus extolling the slaughter of noncombatant Egyptians represents sacred scripture to Christians and Muslims as well. Maybe we should drop the subject and just eat.

I wouldn’t be bringing it up—I know that any hint of barbarism in the Judeo-Christian heritage is considered heresy in even the most enlightened circles—but it was the article in The New York Times on the vegan Seder that got me going. That and another one in The Wall Street Journal about spicing up the Passover feast “by throwing toy frogs at one another and having bugs, lice and other fake creatures on the Seder table.” One enthusiast for the ritual intends to use a live frog. Innocent enough, I suppose, except for the report that, “In one household, a son falls to the ground to mark the Death of the Firstborn.”

One would think that this marking of the death of the firstborn would pose a particular problem to participants in the vegan Seder, since humans are presumably part of the animal family and therefore unfit candidates for ritualistic sacrifice. The Times treated this issue of vegan abhorrence to animal sacrifice as a culinary rather than a moral challenge to the observance of Passover. “Holidays are often a challenge for vegans, who eschew all animal foods,” the Times observed, “but the holidays present more obstacles to vegan eaters. In addition, some animal foods, like eggs and lamb, take center stage, forcing vegan Jews to choose between powerful religious traditions and their own values about the food they consume.”


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The conflict between the powerful religious tradition of God’s wrath against animals, human and otherwise, and deeply felt personal food values was handled by Mayim Bialik, an actress on the TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” by, among other clever innovations, substituting a roasted red beet for the traditional lamb’s bone. “For her,” the Times noted, “the beet is a good stand-in, its ‘bloody’ appearance symbolizing the blood the Israelites used to mark their doors to ward off the last of the ten plagues, death of the first born, from their homes.”

The marking of the homes part is clear enough, for how else would an omniscient god know where the Israelites live? But if one is an observant vegan, isn’t it troubling that a firstborn animal, say the offspring of a pet cat, let alone a human child, is to be sacrificed while the life of the lamb is saved?

Hopefully some youngest child, at a Seder somewhere tonight, will have the chutzpah to ask such a question.

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