Passover, Pesach, begins tomorrow evening. It is truly one of the great celebrations of the world. Or, perhaps "commemoration" is a more apt word than "celebration."
One must always rememember that G-d led the Hebrew slaves, the nation of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt. Part of the Exodus story, however, is the visitation of plagues upon the Egyptians. These plagues include G-d causing the deaths of the first-born in Egypt. What's more, the Exodus story also encompasses the drowning of the Egyptian military in the un-parting Red Sea.
These last two events are difficult but important to deal with. I think many of us, myself included, would have preferred that the liberation of the three million Hebrew slaves without any harm befalling the Egyptians. Pharoah, of course, was a man of a hard heart. He was stubborn, vindictive, and mean. His death would have saddened no slave, but he lived. Who were those who died? Egyptian children, in the case of the tenth plague, and Egyptian soldiers. Innocents and pawns.
One must think carefully about these deaths and make sure that they are included and addressed in the annual Passover experience.
To deal with these deaths, we might consider first the easier case, that of the Egyptian soldiers. They were hand-picked by Pharoah and sent by him to attack the emigrating Israelites. These warriors were going out to make war, and soldiering is a high-risk enterprise. They were going out to kill or be killed. We can respectfully be relieved that our lives were spared and the lives of those coming to attack us were not. There's no rejoicing in the loss of life, but the situation created by Pharoah's sending out the troops was one in which someone was going to die. Regarding the tenth plague, though, I think the critical context is truly the fact that Pharoah himself had previously ordered the killing of the Israelites' first-born male children. Pharoah, it seems, determined the specific affliction across his own land.
In both cases, we have a turnaround or transformation. The attacking soldiers become the victms. Pharoah's command becomes visited upon his own house and people. Action begets circumstance begets reversal.
For me, then, Passover means something like this: As motion and transformation, G-d creates the events determined by our actions. Pharoah's order of infanticide is transformed and set in motion against him and all of Egypt. The leadership and strength of Moses are transformed into the physical exodus from Egypt and inscribed in the miracles that become revealed to all of Israel.
During Pesach, we remember that we ourselves were lifted from bondage by G-d. We remember that the unjust and cruel actions of some created death and misery for others. We finally acknowledge again that each of us performs actions that G-d inscribes in the universe and transforms into the events we witness.
At the seder table we have the opportunity to make a personal exodus. The non-Hebrew term "Exodus" typically refers to a mass of people. Each of us is mutli-dimensional and a composite of many people: Jewish man, Father, Husband, Son, Brother, American, Russian descendant, English descendant, Employee, Manager, Volunteer, and so on many times over.
The Passover commemoration is a time for all of these people to recognize and follow a leader -- maybe it's an outside person, an internal yearning or a guiding principle. It is a chance for these multitudes to be brought into a world of transformation. They will come to liberation if the actions that bring them into the world are neighborly and constructive. They will be undercut and utterly shattered if the actions embodying them are hurtful and vicious.