Sunday, April 1, 2007

Thoughts on Passover

Tomorrow (Monday) night begins the Jewish holiday of Passover, commemorating the Jews' escape from Egypt (where they had been slaves). I will not be observing the holiday, but I did read through the first 14 or so chapters of Exodus, where the story is laid out in full. Here's some evidence of my ponderings (not a word, I know):

An important note: the whole story occurs because (1.8) “There arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.” In other words, the whole reason why such a terrible act took place is simply because one king didn’t pay attention in history class…

How did the Jews become free? Did they bust free French Revolution style or were they helped by CIA-like God to overthrow a tyrannical government? I think that there is a lot of symbolism in the story that represents the real way the Jews got free: through a self-awareness/awakening combined with an emboldening spirit/strength that allowed them to rise up and do the impossible, escape.

(1.17) The first instance of rebelliousness occurs when some unidentified “midwives” (we don’t know if they’re Jewish or not) decide to ignore the law announced in the preceding verse: “if it be a man child, kill it; if a woman, keep it alive.” Why did they save some male babies? Because, it says, they “feared God.”
What does this mean, fear of God? Is he a deterrent, as in we don’t commit crimes because we are afraid of the consequences? Surely not. So we must consider the fact that the decree to kill Jewish males is an unjust law. Think about Jim Crow, Apartheid, etc. and the ways in which they were defied. Surely the rebellious pioneers recognized that the law was wrong and then mustered enough strength to defy it.
I think that God represents this strength within the midwives, that they should risk their lives to chop at the unjust institution they were living under.

(2.2-3) The second instance of rebelliousness comes from Moses’ mother, who saves Moses’ life by basketing him down the river.

(2.17) The third instance of rebelliousness comes years later, when a grown-up Moses witnesses the cruel treatment of Jews. Whether or not he recognizes them as his brethren is irrelevant because what matters is that what he witnessed struck a chord deep within his being. He saw a terrible sight of injustice! And it was not like seeing someone get mobbed in an alleyway, this is an unavoidable, systemic breaking of a fundamental law of nature (freedom).
The most interesting thing about this episode is that before he lashes out, Moses looks around to make sure no one is watching. What does this mean? It means that Moses had thoughts that what he was doing was unacceptable, similar to that yes-I-just-ate-the-garbage-boo-woo sad dog face we all know. You don’t make that face unless you know what you did or doing is wrong. But probably because his anger was so intense that he didn’t even care about the consequences, Moses lashes out anyway.
This is an instance of doing something immoral (killing somebody) in order to protest a larger instance of immorality. As we shall see, God him/herself is guilty of this crime.
As if to prove that what he did was wrong, the bible shows that he is ratted out by fellow Jews (!!) and is forced to escape.

(2.16-18) Moses does a moral act by helping to feed and water the priest of Midian’s daughters’ sheep. His reward is Zippora (one of the daughters) and some food and bread…Finally! A moral act is rewarded!!!

It’s important to remember that Moses is 80 when he goes back to Egypt. I think it’s perfectly possible that the next section, that with the burning bush and Moses’ lack of confidence, represents an old man’s self-reflection in his last years. He’s sitting around with his sheep thinking about the world and his life’s contribution and he suddenly remembers the injustices he left behind and the way he might destroy that institution.
Right on cue, our confidence-giving spirit arrives on set, assuring Moses that everything is going to be OK because, after all, I can turn your staff into a freaking serpent. As the story continues, God consistently assuages Moses’ fears with a word of inspiration, a show of power, etc.
This interplay is important because the more Moses tries to fight the injustices he sees, the worse the repercussions are. His first act brings expulsion. His second act—when he and Aaron go to Pharoah to request that the Jews be allowed to worship in the desert (5.3-9)—also brings consequences. In this case Pharoah not only denies them their request but increases the slaves’ load by requiring them to fetch their own straw to make the bricks while keeping the quota the same. Likewise, the plagues cause equal suffering on the Jews, who must subsist in the same land as those being punished.

Throughout this part of the story (while Moses bargains and pleads with Pharoah) God’s role changes considerably. He becomes the ultimate arbiter of events, controlling people’s minds and actions for his/her own benefit. The major players basically become God’s pawns.
First, s/he tells Moses exactly what to tell Pharoah. Then s/he knows that Pharoah will be on the bank of the river at a specific time and tells Moses to stand on the other side and point his staff at Pharoah and say, “The lord God of the Hebrews hath sent me unto thee, saying, Let my people go, that they may serve me in the wilderness” (7.16) He does not say “Let them go because what you are doing is unjust,” he says “Let them go so they can serve ME!” Wasn’t God supposed to be helping Moses?!!
There is one more instance of God’s selfish attitude towards the affair, which is typified by a quote from 7.3: “And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.” A few verses later, in what is basically a fancy version of an arm-wrestling match, God’s serpents beat Pharoah’s magicians’ serpents. (And God probably got all the babes too…).

But seriously, there has to be some kind of justification for these seemingly bogus acts on God’s part that appear to completely contradict the selflessness of the three rebellious actions in the beginning of the story. Is it possible that God’s intervention in the story is actually a negative thing???
I think there is a perfectly good justification for his/her intervention, assuming that by now we all agree that God represents an emboldening force, a confidence so supreme that it could make you delusional. Well it only follows that such a passion, such a zeal for justice, could get out of control. You only have to go as far as the Weathermen or environmental terrorists to find that. Indeed, our very own people, the Jewish Irgun in pre-mandate Palestine, were guilty of this same thing. They were out and out terrorists, fighting against the British and the Arabs in order to secure safe ground for a Jewish home land.
Perhaps, though, this explanation is too radical. And I don’t want to get too much into the strengthening of Pharoah’s heart because it is an issue of its own. I would only say that perhaps God showed so much strength—so much unneeded strength, after all, if he knew all of Pharoah’s actions and had the power to carry out the plagues, surely he could have ended this story much quicker—in order to make sure that Pharoah wouldn’t change his mind yet again, and further to show that these Jews mean some serious business, they have God on their side.

In the end, the Jews approach the Dead Sea and are petrified by what they see in front of them. Once more, God gives them the boot they need, convincing them they can indeed do the impossible, they can basically walk over water. And they do!

What can we learn from this? I think the most important thing to remember is the fact that some rebellious people recognized an injustice and were prepared to lose their lives fighting to undermine it.
We can also learn that God is a frustrating character (he/she also implicitly approves of slavery in 12.44). He/she seems to take over the process of freedom and turns it into a bloodbath. On the other hand, without such strength, it is likely that the Jews never would have gotten out. So we should be wary of God’s power, just as we should be wary of our own strength, and if we choose to fight injustices, we should do so in an appropriate manner—not by fighting fire with fire, but by dousing it with truth, justice, and even a little bit of love.

[These brackets denote a sort of irrelevant post script: There seems to be a hint of some kind of didactic statement regarding the Jewish people and their destiny. I might extrapolate and come up with this: The Jewish people are destined to be enslaved unfairly and the only way to extract themselves will be through recognition and blood-chilling force. There is textual evidence for such a nationalistic statement: 13.2 has God demanding that “whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine.” God goes on to say that what links the Jewish people, besides their covenant with God, is their shared experience leaving Egypt. Of course, shared history is one of the tenets of a true nation].