April 18, 2008

Readings for Pessah

Pessah, like every old tradition, carries within it seamlessly the humanistic and the chauvinist, the universal and the tribal, the fabulous and the real. Reading the story is never straightforward; to read is to step into a minefield. Caveat lector! Yet reading touches the core of Pessah as a co-memoration. Reading the Hagaddah--the re-telling of the story of slavery and liberation--is the heart of pessah. But how to tell the story? To recite? To repeat? to study? to criticize? To compare? to transform? And whom to tell? Only your sons (ve-higadeta le-baneikha)? only Jews? And how to remember? What lesson to draw? What 'we' to constitute with that memory?

Caveat lector!

With this warning cleared, let's therefore tell the story.

The historical details in the story of Exodus are fabulations. The Pyramids were not built by slaves, let alone Hebrew slaves, of which there is not a trace in Egyptian records. But one thing clearly isn't imaginary. The biblical author understands oppression and liberation. Pharaoh is a study in the obtuseness of power and Moses is a study in the challenge of organizing liberation.

today I want to focus on Pharaoh; he is a role model for many modern readers of the Haggadah.

The Exodus story begins with Pharaoh hatching a plan for pre-emptive genocide out of chauvinistic paranoia.
He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." (Exodus 1:9-10, New Revised Standard Version of the Bible)
That "demographic threat" is an old story, oppression is always pre-emptive and justified by security, and that fifth column has a very long history!
Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.
But--surprise, surprise--the brilliant plan for "security through oppression" backfired:
But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
Finally, since nothing else worked, Pharaoh opts for a slow genocide:
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile..."
The parellels are just too obvious. The book of Exodus should be studied in Political Science 101.

Here is Arnon Sofer giving his best Pharaonic impersonation:
When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it's going to be a human catastrophe. Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It's going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, everyday. (Jerusalem Post, May 21, 2004)
And here is Pharaoh Effi Eitam, MK:
We've got to remove Israeli Arabs from the political scene. We've allowed a fifth column to grow here - a group of traitors. We can't have a hostile group like this in our political system... (Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2006)
And, since nothing works, and as oppression grows so does resistance, we get to Pharaoh Matan Vilnai reaching the same conclusion Pharaoh did:
The more Qassam fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger 'shoah' because we will use all our might to defend ourselves. (quoted Army Radio transcript )

The interaction between Moses and Pharaoh is a dramatic explication of Frederick Douglas's famous words, which ought to repeated and repeated because they are so easily forgotten:
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
The first "negotiation" session is instructive:
So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded; Aaron threw down his staff before Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers; and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did the same by their secret arts. Each one threw down his staff, and they became snakes; but Aaron's staff swallowed up theirs.Still Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 7:20-22)
Moses and Aaron have a contest with Pharaoh's advisers. It is a polite affair--no violence, no threats. The 'rational' terms of the contest are accepted on both sides--magic as proof of divine approval. Moses and Aaron win the argument. But winning the argument proves useless. Political Science 201: Power never says to the oppressed: "on second thought, you are right." It never has and it never will.

Rather, resistance must escalate. The story of the ten plagues is familiar and we'll fast-forward to the culmination:
At midnight the Lord struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the prisoner who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his officials and all the Egyptians; and there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Then he summoned Moses and Aaron in the night, and said, "Rise up, go away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord, as you said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone. And bring a blessing on me too!" (Exodus 12:29-32)
This is pretty gruesome stuff. Yet it is only AFTER this massacre comes to pass that Pharaoh relents. Only when the resistance mirrors to power power's own genocidal terms (although on a reduced scale), only when it speaks power's language, the language of indiscriminate murder, that Paraoh finally gets it. When he asks Moses to "bring a blessing on me too," Pharaoh, for the first time in the story, engages Moses in a civilized exchange between equals.

There is a lesson to learn here, and there is also a lesson not to learn. Caveat lector!

Class dismissed.

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