Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt: Thoughts on Passover

by Corey Robin on April 12, 2014

The first night of Passover is on Monday, and I’ve been thinking about and preparing for the Seder. I had a mini-victory this morning, when I was shopping for fish in Crown Heights. The guy at the fish store told me that thanks to the Polar Vortex, 90% of Lake Huron is frozen. Which means no whitefish. Which means no gefilte fish. So I put on my best impression of Charlotte in Sex and the City —”I said lean!”—and managed, through a combination of moxie and charm, to get him to give me the last three pounds of whitefish and pike in Crown Heights. Plus a pound of carp. Which means…gefilte fish!

Food is the easy part of the seder. The hard part is making it all mean something. When I was a union organizer, I used to go to freedom seders. Being part of the labor movement, I found it was easy to to see points of connection between what I was doing and this ancient story of bondage, struggle, and emancipation (a story, however, that we never seem to really tell at Passover).

Then, as my feelings about Zionism became more critical, I found a new point of connection to Passover: using the Seder, and the Exodus story, as a moment to reflect upon the relationship between the Jews, the land of Israel, and possession of that land, to ask why we think of emancipation in terms of possession. For a while there, we’d hold seders with readings from Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution and Edward Said’s brilliant critique of Walzer in Granta: “Michael Walzer’s Exodus and Revolution: A Canaanite Reading.”

But nowadays, the Seder is harder for me. I’m more puzzled by the meaning of slavery and emancipation; I find it more difficult to make the connections I used to make. The Haggadah seems stranger, more remote, than ever.

So I asked folks on Facebook to make some suggestions for supplemental readings. Jade Larissa Schiff, a political theorist at Oberlin, suggested Frederick Douglass’s Narrative. I’ve taught this text more than a dozen times, to undergrads and grad students. But I’ve always been leery of using it at Passover. There are few things more embarrassing than being at a seder where relatively privileged people talk about being slaves. But I gave it a re-read.

Turns out, there’s quite a bit in the text that’s relevant. I don’t want to steal the thunder from our seder, but here are just a few passages that jumped out at me. I share them with you all, whether you’re going to a seder or not, in the spirit of the holiday. And in the spirit of what Walzer says about the meaning of the Exodus story in the closing passages of Exodus and Revolution:

We still believe, or many of us do, what the Exodus first taught, or what it has commonly been taken to teach, about the meaning and possibility of politics, and about its proper form:


—first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;


—second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;


—and third, that “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.


1. In this passage from chapter 6, Douglass describes his discovery of the subversive power of reading (in a later passage, he’ll describe the misery that can come with the self-knowledge that reading brings). Reading is on my mind this year for a couple of reasons. First, my six-year-old daughter began reading this past year. In the mornings, she gets up early, and sneaks a half-hour to read a page or two from one of the Harry Potter books. You can see the sense of autonomy and independence, and the subversion of authority that Douglass talks about (we try to tell her not to get up before 7), at work there.

But, second, New York, like the rest of the country, is in the middle of a battle over high-stakes testing, with an increasing number of parents simply opting out of the testing regime. Last week, parents, teachers, and students at my daughter’s elementary school held a rally to protest the latest round of tests in New York. Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of the school, wrote an oped in the Times about the insanity of eight-year-olds being forced to sit for three days as their futures get determined. It’s like the bar exam!

Anyway, reading Douglass, I got to thinking about how this activity—reading—which has been a source of joy and wonder, of subversion and autonomy, for so many children across so many decades, is now being reduced to the most mindless form of drudgery on behalf of a phantom meritocracy.

Here’s Douglass:

Very soon after I went to live with Mr. and Mrs. Auld, she very kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. After I had learned this, she assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters. Just at this point of my progress, Mr. Auld found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read. To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. It was just what I wanted, and I got it at a time when I the least expected it. Whilst I was saddened by the thought of losing the aid of my kind mistress, I was gladdened by the invaluable instruction which, by the merest accident, I had gained from my master. Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read. The very decided manner with which he spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn. In learning to read, I owe almost as much to the bitter opposition of my master, as to the kindly aid of my mistress. I acknowledge the benefit of both.


2. In this passage from chapter 8, Douglass describes how his grandmother was treated when she got old and sick, nearing death. Nothing more demonstrated “the infernal character of slavery,” writes Douglass, than the disregard she was shown by her master when she was no longer useful to him. The emphatic nature of this passage—the “base ingratitude” of sending someone off to die being the signature of slavery—made me wonder about how we often warehouse the elderly in homes. And what kind of slavery we’re sustaining thereby. Here’s Douglass:

 

If any one thing in my experience, more than another, served to deepen my conviction of the infernal character of slavery, and to fill me with unutterable loathing of slaveholders, it was their base ingratitude to my poor old grandmother. She had served my old master faithfully from youth to old age. She had been the source of all his wealth; she had peopled his plantation with slaves; she had become a great grandmother in his service. She had rocked him in infancy, attended him in childhood, served him through life, and at his death wiped from his icy brow the cold death-sweat, and closed his eyes forever. She was nevertheless left a slave—a slave for life—a slave in the hands of strangers; and in their hands she saw her children, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, divided, like so many sheep, without being gratified with the small privilege of a single word, as to their or her own destiny. And, to cap the climax of their base ingratitude and fiendish barbarity, my grandmother, who was now very old, having outlived my old master and all his children, having seen the beginning and end of all of them, and her present owners finding she was of but little value, her frame already racked with the pains of old age, and complete helplessness fast stealing over her once active limbs, they took her to the woods, built her a little hut, put up a little mud-chimney, and then made her welcome to the privilege of supporting herself there in perfect loneliness; thus virtually turning her out to die! If my poor old grandmother now lives, she lives to suffer in utter loneliness; she lives to remember and mourn over the loss of children, the loss of grandchildren, and the loss of great-grandchildren….


The hearth is desolate. The children, the unconscious children, who once sang and danced in her presence, are gone. She gropes her way, in the darkness of age, for a drink of water. Instead of the voices of her children, she hears by day the moans of the dove, and by night the screams of the hideous owl. All is gloom. The grave is at the door. And now, when weighed down by the pains and aches of old age, when the head inclines to the feet, when the beginning and ending of human existence meet, and helpless infancy and painful old age combine together—at this time, this most needful time, the time for the exercise of that tenderness and affection which children only can exercise towards a declining parent—my poor old grandmother, the devoted mother of twelve children, is left all alone, in yonder little hut, before a few dim embers. She stands—she sits—she staggers—she falls—she groans—she dies—and there are none of her children or grandchildren present, to wipe from her wrinkled brow the cold sweat of death, or to place beneath the sod her fallen remains. Will not a righteous God visit for these things?


3. In this passage from chapter 10, Douglass describes the surveillance regime of one of his masters, Edward Covey. I was struck in reading this by the parallels with so many surveillance systems in the contemporary workplace, whether it be for maids in a hotel or white-collar workers. Particularly the emphasis on not knowing if you’re being watched or not.

 

Mr. Covey was one of the few slaveholders who could and did work with his hands. He was a hard-working man. He knew by himself just what a man or a boy could do. There was no deceiving him. His work went on in his absence almost as well as in his presence; and he had the faculty of making us feel that he was ever present with us. This he did by surprising us. He seldom approached the spot where we were at work openly, if he could do it secretly. He always aimed at taking us by surprise. Such was his cunning, that we used to call him, among ourselves, “the snake.” When we were at work in the cornfield, he would sometimes crawl on his hands and knees to avoid detection, and all at once he would rise nearly in our midst, and scream out, “Ha, ha! Come, come! Dash on, dash on!” This being his mode of attack, it was never safe to stop a single minute. His comings were like a thief in the night. He appeared to us as being ever at hand. He was under every tree, behind every stump, in every bush, and at every window, on the plantation. He would sometimes mount his horse, as if bound to St. Michael’s, a distance of seven miles, and in half an hour afterwards you would see him coiled up in the corner of the wood-fence, watching every motion of the slaves. He would, for this purpose, leave his horse tied up in the woods. Again, he would sometimes walk up to us, and give us orders as though he was upon the point of starting on a long journey, turn his back upon us, and make as though he was going to the house to get ready; and, before he would get half way thither, he would turn short and crawl into a fence-corner, or behind some tree, and there watch us till the going down of the sun.


4. In Exodus and Revolution, Walzer points out (at least I think he does; it’s been a while) that one of the elements that made bondage in ancient Egypt bondage was the fact that the slaves had to work so much. It wasn’t merely the coerciveness, but the omnipresence, of work that they suffered and experienced as slavery. Labor was everything; labor was everywhere. In this passage, also from chapter 10, Douglass makes a similar point. It brought to mind some of the debates that several writers in and around Jacobin have been having over the last several years about the left and the politics of work: should our stance be to reform or reorganize work, to make it more just and share its burdens more equally, or to oppose it entirely, to reduce if not eliminate it? Here’s Douglass:

 

If at any one time of my life more than another, I was made to drink the bitterest dregs of slavery, that time was during the first six months of my stay with Mr. Covey. We were worked in all weathers. It was never too hot or too cold; it could never rain, blow, hail, or snow, too hard for us to work in the field. Work, work, work, was scarcely more the order of the day than of the night. The longest days were too short for him, and the shortest nights too long for him. I was somewhat unmanageable when I first went there, but a few months of this discipline tamed me. Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!


Sunday was my only leisure time. I spent this in a sort of beast-like stupor, between sleep and wake, under some large tree.


In Egypt, indeed.

Chag Sameach.

{ 15 comments }

1

Jim Buck 04.12.14 at 6:53 pm

Chag Sameach. May you live long.

2

DavidtheK 04.13.14 at 1:46 am

Aviva Zornberg has written of Egypt as a prototype of the police state trapped in its own OCD. She has written a commentary on the whole of Exodus http://www.amazon.com/The-Particulars-Rapture-Reflections-Exodos/dp/080521237X.

I heard a Dvar many years ago that when Joseph first came before Pharaoh, and recounted the dreams he had interpreted while in prison, he was trying to intimate that Pharaoh had hung the wrong man. The chief of the bakers (who was hung) supervised a kitchen with perhaps hundreds of servants preparing meals for the entirety of the royal household. What ever annoyed Pharaoh could have occurred at any point in the process from kitchen to table. The royal cup bearer (who came back to his job) was the last line of defense. If something went wrong, it really was his fault. I’m sorry I don’t know the source for this; but still interesting.

Enjoy the blog. Thank for your time and effort. A Chag Kasher v’ Sameach.

3

Jonathan Dresner 04.13.14 at 2:36 am

Last year, after working through some bare bones of the Seder structure, we replaced the commentary with a straight round-robin reading the relevant sections of Exodus, with commentary and discussion as we saw fit. Ended up being the most satisfying Seder I’ve done or attended in a few years.

“And God hardened Pharaoh’s heart…” is always good for a moment of contemplation.

4

Corey Robin 04.13.14 at 2:52 am

Jonathan Dresner: Not a bad idea. I’ve always wondered why we don’t actually tell the Exodus story the seder; rabbi I spoke with recently said it’s because Moses is too central to it. Passover isn’t supposed to be about Moses but freedom. Anyway, I’m going to look over some passages.

5

Jonathan Dresner 04.13.14 at 4:18 am

Passover isn’t supposed to be about Moses but freedom.

I thought it was about memory, and creating a community from shared experience.

But I’m an historian, so everything’s about memory with me.

6

godoggo 04.13.14 at 5:01 am

I thought it was about thanking God for killing the 1st born of the Egyptions.

7

godoggo 04.13.14 at 5:01 am

And yes, I plan on spelling it that way from now on.

8

adam.smith 04.13.14 at 5:28 am

I’ve been unhappy with the lack of (or poor) telling of the Exodus story at past seders I’ve been to and hosted (some people show the Rugrats version of the story, which is cute, but also missing a lot) so I tried to find something good for this year. I found this historic Freedom Seder Haggadah: https://theshalomcenter.org/content/original-1969-freedom-seder which includes an A. J. Muste narration of the Exodus story that I thought was rather nice. Sounding a bit dated perhaps at times, but I think I’ll try using that (though it’s only the first half of the story).

9

Meredith 04.13.14 at 5:44 am

I feel I’ve just been to a seder. Thank you, Corey. And maybe to add something, I wonder: are there different kinds of wilderness? Productive ones and truly overwhelming ones? (I’m asking this as some variety of Christian or other who at moments in this, our shared somehow in some way to some degree, season thinks about Jesus in the wilderness. Also as someone who spends a lot of time with Greek tragedy — the wilderness doesn’t promise you anything; maybe, it says, at best.) In retrospect, Douglass recognizes his deadening by Covey. Yet his very recognition (especially since expressed in high literary form) tells us Covey didn’t succeed with Douglass. Yet he no doubt did succeed on some crucial level for many. (A few embers may be kept alive in the ashes, but most die.)

For now, in the spirit of the season, I’ll focus on Douglass’ grandmother. Her manner of death unspeakable, but her life redeeming (and I suspect she would have cared more about what her life gave than her own sorry death). Douglass came out of her life, for instance. We should all remember her, emulate her.

10

godoggo 04.13.14 at 6:58 am

And here’s another question. Why don’t we actually recline? You always get some kid to ask why we recline, but if you look around, nobody’s ever actually doing it. Oy. I’m going to go lie down now.

11

godoggo 04.13.14 at 7:20 am

I bet Jesus reclined.

12

Bloix 04.13.14 at 2:40 pm

#10 – my according to my parents, my mother’s grandfather would place a pillow in an armchair. He sat at the head of the table and presided over the Seder. No one else would “recline” as it was completely impractical to seat a dozen people around a normal-height table with pillows in armchairs.

And more generally: the Haggadah works as a narrative only for people who know the story intimately. The events of the Exodus are alluded to, but never quite explained. It’s more or less an exegesis on a story that you are expected to know before you arrive at the table.

13

Corey Robin 04.13.14 at 5:56 pm

I don’t know if that’s really true about the Haggadah: that you’re expected to know it before you get there. One of the steps of the seder that’s mentioned one of the opening prayers (the one where lay out of the signposts of the seder) is “Maggid”: the telling of the story. So there’s a reference there to the telling of the story. There’s also the fact that a critical presence at the seder are children, who are supposed to be initiated into the telling of the story, and Judaism more generally, at the seder. They don’t know things yet, and what differentiates them as children is how they approach and deal with their ignorance, that is, how they ask questions. So there’s that emphasis on asking of questions — with one of the children designated as the child that doesn’t even know to ask a question — and also of the presence of strangers at the seder (“all who are in dire straits, come share Passover with us”), some of whom may not know the story. And there is the extensive praise of those who tell the story (and are obligated to tell the story): “All who are expansive in their telling of the Exodus from Egypt are worthy of praise.” And it’s not true that the events are not explained: actually part of the Haggadah is about explanation and exegesis: i.e., early on, there’s a brief summation of the story of the Aramean, and then there is an extended discussion of what different parts of that story mean and why they happen (“What did Lavan the Aramean seek to do to Jacob our father?”). In any event, being expected to know the story seems not quite in keeping with the the spirit of the holiday itself.

14

godoggo 04.13.14 at 6:12 pm

Thank you for the thoughtful answers. Of course I’m just entertaining myself by typing out stupid crap, in case it wasn’t obvious.

15

Main Street Muse 04.13.14 at 6:46 pm

“‘Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.'”

I know this is a post about the seder, but when I read this, I now better understand what is going on in my state regarding education (the trashing of it.)

Oh and the young learning to read Harry Potter! How wonderful! My son learned to read with this series (he struggled a great deal to learn to read in those early years.) The battle to rule over mudbloods is quite interesting, in this context. It’s a great series to read aloud too.

I am putting Fredrick Douglass on my summer reading list to re-read once again. Thanks!

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