Do you know what my favorite part of Passover is, brother? The bitter herbs.
Don’t look at me like that. I saw you slip some under the table last year, coward, even though Mother didn’t catch you. You shouldn’t do that, you know. We’re meant to remember: nothing sweet comes without something bitter.
Every year, parents are supposed to tell their children of why we celebrate the Passover meal. Now that Father is gone, I suppose it falls to me, then, being the oldest.
Mother doesn’t tell it right. She tells only the sweet—God’s mercy in leading us to freedom. Just like a woman, I suppose. The God they serve is weak and beautiful, the psalms they sing are the ones with happy endings, the ones without curses or darkness or unanswered questions.
I’ll show you the bitter, Simon. You’re old enough now. You listen, and you tell me if it doesn’t feel more real.
Do you ever wonder what the angel of death looked like? I do. I’ve drawn sketches of him, hundreds of times. He’s no pure and golden archangel like the ones in the temple, that’s for sure. I see a figure with a bared sword the size of a city wall, towering with thundering steps, crushing all who stand in his path and try to resist. Red eyes, the smoke of wrath curling about him. And blood. His robe is dripping with blood.
It’s almost midnight in Egypt. The cruel oppressors are in their beds, but they don’t sleep well, none of them, for their dreams are haunted by the ravaging disease, the crawling pestilence, and unfathomable darkness of the plagues. More than that, some have heard whispers of worse to come.
Among our people, no one sleeps. Everyone is preparing for the great Exodus, following God’s instructions, holding their breath under blood-drenched doorposts. Counting down till midnight.
Yes, the women could bake the unleavened bread and whisper prayers and lullabies over their children that night. But someone had to slit the lamb’s throat. There is the bitter in the sweet, Simon. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” God himself said that.
Then…midnight comes, and the angel of death unsheathes his sword. The story started with rivers of blood, and that is where it ends. The blood of the lambs…and the blood of every firstborn son of Egypt. I’d have died, if I’d been born among them.
What would you do, waking up, to find the angel of death had slaughtered all the heirs in your land, great to small?
You’d cry out, just like they did. Listen, Simon. Can you hear what it must have sounded like? I hear it sometimes, in my dreams. It sounds like every tax collector dying in agony, every Roman mother wailing for a lost son, every oppressor cowering in fear, suddenly realizing that the weak people they belittled and bullied for so long decided it was time to fight back.
We don’t know how the angel struck them down. I like to think, sometimes, that they were hacked to pieces.
Don’t look at me like that. They threw our babies into the Nile to be drowned or eaten by beasts. It’s no more than they deserved. And besides, they had fair warning.
Sometimes I wonder about Pharaoh—how could someone who had seen all the miracles of God that he had, who had heard God’s messenger predict exactly what would happen still make the choice he did?
And then I realize I already know: power. Control. The desire for more, always more, never satisfied. I understand him. Sometimes, when I tell the story to myself at Passover, I am Pharaoh, proud and determined. Sometimes I am the angel of death, bringing justice by the sword. Sometimes I am Moses. Sometimes I am God himself.
They say our God is a merciful deliverer. Don’t believe them, Simon. They tell you that to keep you docile, in hope that someday, if we pray enough, if we follow enough commandments, God will lead us out from the Roman empire.
They forget that our God is a warrior with legions of angelic armies at his command. Any Passover, at his command, and plagues and pestilence could sweep down again on our oppressors. Maybe not this Passover. Maybe not the next. But someday.
They call me a Zealot. Well, David himself said, “Zeal for your house has consumed me.” That’s in one of those Psalms Mother doesn’t sing. Do you know what it’s like to be consumed by something? By anger, by desire, by a need to rise up to a glorious destiny?
No? I suppose that would be too much to ask. I’ve always felt…very alone.
There’s something about the Passover, though. It’s special to me, somehow. If I could rise up on that day with the sword of the Lord and do something—anything—to stir our people out of their apathy, I could make them all free. I, Judas Iscariot, could be the second Moses.
So eat those bitter herbs, Simon. Let them linger on your tongue. Savor them. Remember that without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and if we wait too long, that blood might be ours instead of our enemies.
The day of death is coming, and soon. And I, for one, intend to be there when it happens.
(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas. Here are the archives: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015.)