Tonight is the first night of Pesach, Passover. Jews around the world will gather to retell our founding story: how we were unjustly enslaved in Egypt and how God liberated us after crushing the Egyptians with unbelievable horrors. I just can’t get behind this story.
First of all we Jews were not innocent victims of the Egyptians. Read the closing chapters of Genesis to discover that Joseph and Pharaoh used the seven years of famine to strip the Egyptian people of everything they had: their land, their dignity, their freedoms. Only three groups thrived during this period: Pharaoh, his Priests, and the Hebrew people. I am not proud of this, nor can I herald Joseph as my hero.
So tonight before we get drunk on our innocence, let us atone for our guilt—for our having collaborated with Pharaoh at the expense of the Egyptian people—by seeing where we may be collaborating with evil today, and ending that collaboration during the week of Pesach.
Skip to the plagues. This was a war between YHVH and the Gods of Egypt. Each of the ten plagues is the defeat of an Egyptian God: from Hapi, God of the Nile; to Ra, God of the Sun; to Pharaoh, God on Earth. I love stories of Gods at War, but the collateral damage to the Egyptian people is untenable. The ancient rabbis knew this. That’s why they tell the story of God opposing the Hebrews’ celebration of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, and why they commanded us to diminish our cups of wine that we not drink to the suffering of others.
Our liberation cost the Egyptian people dearly. Let that sober us up, and more importantly let it shift our attention to others, such as the Palestinians, who continue to pay a heavy price for our freedom.
For me the real heroes of Pesach are the women. Passover is a women’s revolution against the madness of Pharaohs and Gods: the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse to murder the Hebrew baby boys, Moses’ mother Yocheved saves her son from the soldiers sent to kill him, Pharaoh’s daughter defies her father and raises Moses as her own son in his own house, Moses sister Miriam brings Yocheved to nurse him establishing a silent conspiracy of Moses’ two mommies against the all-powerful Pharaoh, and Moses’ wife Zipporah saves her husband from a God gone mad who seeks to murder her husband even as he makes his way to Egypt to save the Hebrew people. Had any one of these women failed, the story would end in tragedy rather than triumph.
Let tonight be more than a celebration of an ancient liberation from evil. Let it be a time to admit to and liberate ourselves from our own collaboration with evil; a time to admit to and end the suffering we cause others; a time to challenge the power of gods— religious, economic, political— and to celebrate the power of the few to do justly regardless of the odds.
Chag sameach Pesach.