The stories of Pharaoh’s cruelty, including ordering the drowning of Israelite baby boys, and, on the other side, the pain inflicted by the 10 plagues, ending with the deaths of Egyptian first borns, are cautionary tales. Looking at today’s headlines from Syria and elsewhere, it’s clear that mankind’s capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others has not diminished in 4,000 years.
For Jews, the dangers of persecution do not end with the liberation from Egypt and the entry into the Land of Israel. During the seder, we are reminded that “in every generation, they arise to strike us down.” And before opening the door for Elijah and our plea for a speedy messianic redemption, we ask God to pour out his anger against the tormentors.
In the Jewish tradition, war and outbreaks of brutality and coarse inhumanity are built into the human condition. And war will only end when the Messiah comes, according to the prophetic vision, and the existing natural order is replaced, the lion lies down with the lamb, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. But until then, we must be prepared to fight and defend ourselves in order to survive.
I would argue that the tendency to replace the realism of Passover and of Jewish history with an intoxicating messianism is mistaken. Such messages are inspiring and provide hope for the long term, but it is a mistake to confuse them with reality. The Passover seder, with the matzah – the bread of affliction, and the maror – the bitter herbs, does a good job of separating the real world and the messianic ideal.