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How to Talk to Kids About the Darker Side of the Passover Story

In my house, when we start talking plagues, I know I need to be prepared for way more than four questions.

    It didn’t take my kids long to start asking questions about the 10 plagues. I distinctly recall watching my oldest son—a firstborn son—as the 10th plague clicked for him. “Why would G-d make the babies die?” he asked, with tears filling his wide eyes. “The babies didn’t do anything wrong.”
    The babies didn’t do anything wrong.
    I regret that I didn’t have a good explanation for him at the time. I regret that my only response was to hold him and to tell him that our babies are safe. I regret that I wasn’t more prepared for the oh-so-obvious sentiment that maybe, just maybe, there could have been other ways to get the Jews to freedom. That maybe G-d, in all of G-d’s omnipotence and omniscience, could have led the Jews out of slavery with a little less civilian devastation.
    There can be a good-faith tendency to try to add levity to the seder table, to decorate with cutesy plastic frogs and wind-up bugs. To make the absolute horror show of the Exodus story a little more palatable. To rightly focus on the celebration of our freedom. But in my house at least, when we start talking plagues, I know I need to be prepared for the kids to ask way more than four questions. Here are some tips that I plan to use.
1. Spend time talking about the hard things before you get to the seder table.
    My mother-in-law is a force of nature at Passover. She leans into all of it, and the traditions she creates are breathtaking. And while I’m sure tears at the table would be just fine (perhaps symbolic, even), consider giving your kids the space to process the harder parts before you get to the table, when there’s no audience of uncles who are eager to get to the eating portion of the seder.
    This is also helpful because, for my family at least, when we are around the seder table, we are surrounded by family and friends who wish to celebrate, learn, catch up and lean in to the traditional telling of the Exodus story through readings and song. With all of the wonderful hullabaloo, and with kids up way past their bedtimes, there’s not a lot of extra time to stop the seder and dig into what experiencing the plagues must have been like for the Egyptians and for the Israelites.
    In the days leading up to the seder, I recommend setting aside real time—time when your kids can ask the hard questions, when you can listen and think through answers together, when you are unlikely to be cajoled into a table-pounding Dayenu just as you start to wonder if it felt scary to see a river run red.
2. Feel the feelings
    In my house, we name and embrace our feelings. “You feel sad because this is a sad thing.” “You feel upset because what happened is upsetting.” “You feel happy because this is a joyous time.” “You feel annoyed because things aren’t going according to your plan.” We don’t tell the kids to stop crying. We ask them whether the tears help them with the pain of whatever bump or boo-boo or sibling disagreement has occurred.
    We’ll do the same when we discuss the Passover plagues. I feel sick to my stomach when I think about the Egyptian mothers, and I will tell my kids this. My son said it must have been really scary when there was only darkness and no sunlight. I agreed. These things feel hard and uncomfortable because the story is a hard and uncomfortable one; our bodies and emotions are meant to respond accordingly. In my house, we honor our humanity by leaving space to feel all of this.
3. Make room for imagining other stories
    Feeling all of our feelings about catastrophic plagues can get gloomy, but we can also use our incredible powers of imagination to wonder if there could have been other ways to get the Israelites out from under Pharoah’s cruel rule. What if G-d hadn’t given Pharoah so many chances to make the right decision? What if, instead, G-d had told Moses to part for the desert, right from the jump? And the enslaved Jews had walked right out of Egypt while the Egyptians scrambled to dig out from the sand? What if the Egyptian people also suffered under Pharoah, and what if there were righteous Egyptians who helped the Israelites escape? What if the Israelites and the righteous Egyptians worked together to overthrow Pharoah’s terrible rule and install a peaceful and equitable government? What if?
    Getting the kids’ imaginations churning will help pull them out of the grief they may be feeling about the devastation of the plagues, and may get them thinking about all of the agency they have over the choices and actions they take in their own lives.
4. Talk about today’s enslaved, and today’s enslavers.
    One of the hardest things about the Exodus story is that slavery is not historical fiction. Very real systems of oppression remain, in our own country and around the world. You’ve just brainstormed all of the ways things could have gone differently for the Egyptians and the Israelites. Talk about what could change to make our communities equitable today? Would it require a storm of plagues to devastate those who abuse power? Or are there other ways we can work to free ourselves and our neighbors from the systems that keep folks from experiencing real freedom?
5. Practice action
    Knowing that the 10 plagues happened long ago can be hard. There’s nothing we can do now to change the past. But, consider combining the conversations you’ve just had with the kids: We can imagine a world where the plagues didn’t happen, but the Israelites still walked free. We can imagine freedom in our own world. What can we do to move the needle toward freedom? Can we give our time or money? Can we advocate for change? Can we walk differently through our own communities? Can we convince our lawmakers to raise the minimum wage, to guarantee healthcare for all, to house the unhoused, to work toward equal justice for all? Spoiler alert: We, including the kids, can do all of those things.
6. Practice gratitude
    If you are reading this article in your home on an electronic device using a stable internet connection, then you and your kids have tremendous wealth and power. The flipside of taking action is practicing gratitude. Gratitude for our own freedom to openly celebrate Jewish freedom. Gratitude for our own freedom to create change in the world. Gratitude for ears that listen and minds that imagine a different story. Gratitude for writing that different story, together.

LYNN LEVY is a contributing writer to Kveller and Kiddish magazine.

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