At the Passover seder, there is a venerable custom for each participant to dab some wine out of his cup with a finger at the mention of each of the ten plagues. Stuart Halpern notes that the widely quoted explanation for this practice has no basis in traditional texts:
The familiar and inevitable answer [as to why we remove the wine] is some variation of “we diminish the joy of our liberation because of the pain the Egyptians endured during the plagues.” We are being taught not to lift a full cup of liberation if it isn’t tempered by a measure of sorrow for what our enemies have lost. . . . “It must be,” goes the refrain, “that we temper the recitation of triumphant singing by the winners as a sign of respect for the Egyptians, who lost.” As they say on the playground, “Be a good sport.”
Yet as Halpern demonstrates, although the practice dates back at least to the 13th century, generating a variety of suggestions as to why it is done, the now-standard rationale originated in the work of a German rabbi named Eduard Baneth, who died in 1930. Halpern adds:
Whatever its provenance, the empathetic explanation of drips of wine reminding us of Egyptian suffering appealed to the universalistic sensibilities of American Jews.
Much ink, let alone wine, has been spilled in wrestling with how best to express relief in a divine salvation that necessitated the death of others. Perhaps the impulse to empathize with the Egyptians who drowned in the Sea of Reeds springs from too distanced an attitude toward our own suffering, a failure to internalize the injunction to regard oneself as having been a slave in Egypt. It is easier to forgive what you can’t really remember. Indeed, one wonders whether even Rabbi Eduard Baneth, who taught for decades at the Academy of Jewish Studies in Berlin, would have spilled wine in memory of our oppressors had he lived just a decade longer, into that long night of European bondage and worse.