Everyone who’s ever enjoyed a Passover seder knows how wonderful they can be: rousing singing, the story of liberation from bondage, the all-embracing welcoming message inviting “all who are hungry to come and eat.”
This story of joy and redemption begins with the immense suffering of the Jewish people during their centuries of bondage in Egypt. You catch a glimpse of this in the story of Moses, as a young Egyptian prince, who intervenes as a taskmaster flogs an Israelite slave making the bricks for the pyramids (or so the story goes). In a fit of rage, Moses beats the slave master and kills him, leading to his flight to Midian. Every Jew takes pride in this act of courage and resistance in the face of injustice. Every Jew takes pride in this act of vengeance in return for those centuries of suffering.
But it doesn’t end there: God exacts tremendous suffering on the Egyptians before their leader, Pharaoh, relents and permits the Israelites to leave. There are the ten plagues which decimate the Egyptian economy, pollute the environment, wreak havoc with farming and food production, and ultimately kill all the firstborn children including Pharaoh’s own. Must our joy exact such pain on our nemesis?
These plagues are what brought me to write this. We now face our own modern plague. Our own leaders seem no better prepared to confront it than Pharaoh millenia-ago. But the main difference is that at least with the ancient plagues there was some ultimate purpose in all that suffering. It, according to the Haggadah, was necessary to compel the Egyptians to loosen their grip on their slaves. For, we know that no master ever gives up power willingly or because justice demands it. Remember Douglass’ memorable phrase: Power concedes nothing without a fight. It never did and never will.”
Today, Covid19 seems to have no silver lining. Unless felling Boris Johnson–who downplayed the contagion for weeks and thought “herd immunity” and hundreds of thousands of dead Britons was a suitable response–was a proper comeuppance. Covid19 is pure suffering. It has taken some of the best of us: Holocaust survivors, doctors and nurses, mothers with young children, sublime musicians like John Prine and Bill Withers, and artists like Terrence McNally.
Returning to the Passover story, the suffering of the Egyptians did not end with the plagues. In another bout of revenge, the Israelites were told to borrow valuables and jewelry from their Egyptian neighbors. Essentially they were securing reparations for their enslavement by looting their fellow Egyptians. They took the valuables with them as they left and never returned them. Though one can understand the motive of revenge, can one justify this act of pillage? The only thing that is remotely positive about this element of the narrative is that those who created this Biblical account of the exodus did not spare the Israelites. Their behavior is shown warts and all.
And in the closing of the narrative, Pharoah once again has a change of heart, and revokes his permission for the slaves to leave. As they mass to cross the Red Sea, he mobilizes his horsemen and chariots and pursues them. The Bible recounts the seeming miracle of the waters parting for the Israelites to pass through. They are pursued into the Sea by Pharaoh’s army. Just as the fleeing slaves reach the far shore, the seas close and drown the thousands of soldiers who are in hot pursuit.
The Midrash says that as the Egyptians were drowning, the angels (definitely pro-Israelite in this telling) rejoice and sing as the Israelites make their way to freedom. God scolds the angels and tells them to stop their celebration: “How do you sing when My creatures are dying?!” It is a rare bit of compassion from a God who until then appeared to revel in the suffering he inflicted on the Egyptians.
In yet another troubling portion of the Haggadah, near the end of the Seder the guests recite this passage, invoking God to “to pour out Your wrath upon the nations.” This is yet another form of vengeance for the centuries of suffering inflicted on Jews by enemies, whether Egyptian or European Christians. Crusades, Inquisitions, auto da fes, Holocausts–all have left their mark on the Jewish psyche.
The final, troubling question remains: why is it that our liberation must come at the expense of the suffering of others? Given that they have made us suffer–does that mean that our redemption can only be achieved through violence?
And if our freedom comes at the cost of the mass suffering of others? What happens when we become the taskmasters and are responsible for the suffering of another people? Do we not think that as the masters of another people, they will inflict the same hate and violence upon us? And justify it in the same way the Haggadah does?
My sadness lies in the obtuseness of the latter-day Israelites in realizing that they are enslaving another people. And that both peoples are inflicting immense pain on each other. The only way to end the cycle is for the masters to recognize the injustice they perpetrate and end it. If they don’t, then they will suffer the same plagues and misery the Egyptians did.
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