It’s the first day of Passover, and what Your Humble Blogger has been thinking about, in regards to the story of the Exodus, is how the People of Israel did not expect to be released.
Well, they didn’t consistently expect it. First they cried out because of their bondage, and there’s no sense in the text that they were doing anything other than crying out—there’s no intimation that they thought it was going to do any good. Then Moses appears with Aaron and shows them signs and wonders, and the people do believe, vaya’amayn ha’am. But when the Pharaoh retaliates by demanding they make bricks without straw and the people go back to Moses, they don’t bring up the escape. And when Moses tries to reassure them, they hearkened not, lo sham’oo (which I never noticed has a lovely resonance, they did not Shema).
The people of Israel, famously, spend the years in the wilderness going back and forth between belief and disbelief, between faith and the Golden Calf, between songs of praise and wails of woe. They get right up Moses’ nose, I tell you, and I can’t blame him. But what struck me last night and this morning was not their behavior in the wilderness but their emotion while still enslaved. The despair, the hope. The willingness to go along with Moses and his new traditions of the paschal lamb (and despoiling their neighbors) and their simultaneous inability to really imagine freedom.
I spend a lot of time, these days, on the verge of imagining what the future might be like. Going up to the notion of going back to work, my children to school. And then drawing back because maybe those things won’t happen. Or perhaps won’t happen in any easily imaginable way, anyway. Maybe we’ll be back at our favorite pizza joint in a month, eating eggplant fries, or maybe we will never eat there again. Maybe, more seriously, the institution that employs me and my Best Reader will not survive into the new world. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I will, but many things I value and rely on won’t—not just pizza joints but elections, and theaters, and civil rights. Trying to think about the future involves a lot of trying not to think about the future.
And the thing is—I’m quite comfortable at the moment. I’m not sick, my family isn’t sick, my parents and siblings and in-laws aren’t sick. I have food; I can purchase more food. My children are old enough to largely care for themselves, and they do. I can communicate with my friends in a variety of ways. I am not forced to make bricks, either with or without straw. I am not a slave to Pharaoh; my life is not bitter. I am made aware, constantly, that I am running this pandemic on easy mode. That could change.
How would I have responded, had I been one of those enslaved Israelites? If, let’s say, I were experiencing enslavement on easy mode, as one of the shotar, with a house and a family and livestock, and some cushion from the bitterness of the labor. If I saw the infanticide, the violence, the brutality, perhaps personally unscathed but unable either to leave or to help. If I were then told: the Lord of your people will deliver you, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and with signs and wonders.
The Seder—well, the whole story of Exodus, the foundation of the Jewish identity—is told looking back. It’s told from the other side of the Red Sea; we sing about our deliverance, securely knowing that it has happened. That it always has happened. We are required to think of it as having happened to us personally, but having already happened. In the past perfect we say: this is because of what the Divine did for me, when I was enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt.
But when I was still enslaved, before the Divine did what he did, could I have imagined saying it in that tense? What would that be like?
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,