festival of freedom
(retribution, revenge)

april 21, 1997

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sat, 19 Apr 1997 03:36:51 -0700 (PDT)
From: "rebecca l. eisenberg"
To: sfrun@abattoir.com
Subject: Re: notes on Seder

I don't think that there is a right or wrong, in particular because I view the story of Moses and Pharaoh, et. al. as one of allegory rather than historical truth, but I had to write this up for a different purpose anyway, so I thought I'd send it on.

If nothing else, it may spare from a life of dissatisfaction those who simply will not rest until they know what it is like to be raised by somewhat humanist-atheist-feminist-postmodern-semi.socialist-language-and-literature-loving jews.


The Hebrew Bible is a fascinating piece of literature. The day after tomorrow begins Passover, a holiday based on the second book of the Torah, called Exodus. I used to attend the seders with my family, until I was banned from them. Here is my take on the story behind the holiday.

It all started when, hundreds of years after the time of Joseph and the Israelites, who to some extent lived in peace in Egypt, there came to be a Pharaoh who "knew not Joseph" and consequently put in place a caste system based on anti-semitism, where all jews were forced into a slave underclass, working to build Pyramids or whatnot, while the non-jewish upperclass lived lives of leisure.

During these times, a jewish woman had a child, but was too poor to keep it. So, she floated the baby in a reed crib down a river (classic philosophical allegory, many will notice) when she saw that the daughter of the Pharaoh was about to pass by, and then she sent her sister to convince the Pharaoh's daughter that she (the mother) should help raise the infant. This short tale, it is postulated, demonstrated the extent to which a mother will sometimes do all she can to avoid being separated from her child, and the importance of good care during the 'formative' years. Or not.

That baby, who was Moses, grew up as the Pharaoh's grandson. Moses, whose roots were not Egyptian, took on his role of chief slave-driver, but had little patience for the slave drivers beneath him when they abused their power. In one instance, Moses killed a slave driver who had beat a slave. Moses had a terrible temper, so he eventually banished himself from Egypt to go live in the wilderness with a Black woman he met out there, and who became his wife.

While hanging out in the wilderness, one day Moses came upon the image of a burning bush. The burning bush, which was meant to be "god," spoke to Moses and told him that he had been chosen to lead the people out of their slavery into the Promised Land. "Why me?" Moses asked. "I am a nitwit, I have a bad temper, and look, I have almost no verbal skills." The god/bush told Moses to have faith and chill; that he would be fine, and that his very competent brother Aaron would be second in command. The "god figure" (hereinafter, "GF") also told Moses that he needed to begin by going back to the Pharaoh and instructing him that he needed to free the jews from slavery, or else Pharaoh's kingdom would be punished by means of a number of nasty plagues.

So Moses did what he was told, and headed back to Egypt. He asked the Pharaoh 12 times to free the slaves, but each time he asked, GF "hardened Pharaoh's heart," and the Pharaoh said no. And each time Pharaoh said no, a different devastating phenomenon occurred -- from a plague of locusts, to frogs, to hail, to water turning to blood. Maybe, had GF not kept hardening Pharaoh's heart, Pharaoh would have let the slaves go. But we cannot know this for sure.

At any rate, the twelfth plague eventually hit the land of Egypt -- and that twelfth plague embodied the killing of all of the first born children in the land. In order to save the jews, GF instructed Moses to tell them all to put a leg of lamb on their door so that the Angel of Death, when passing through the land, would continue to fly over them, and not stop to take the oldest child.

After all those children died needlessly, GF then softened Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh then let the slaves go.

Off they went, with Moses in charge. For forty years the former slaves wandered through the desert on the way to the Promised Land. They complained a lot -- forty years is a long time. They also became very thirsty, and demanded that Moses, whom they blamed for all their discomfort, acquire water for them to drink. Moses had no clue how to obtain water in the desert, so he asked GF. GF responded that Moses needed only to ask a rock for water. But Moses, still being a person with very little patience, hit the rock instead of asking it nicely. This, unsurprisingly, pissed off GF, but GF produced the water anyway, and the wandering Jews drank. But they still were hungry, thirsty, hot, uncomfortable, and bitter. They needed some discipline, perhaps.

Thus, GF sent Moses up to the top of a mountain to bring down some laws with which to rule the people. Moses, as usual, did what he was told -- kinda. He placed Aaron in charge during his absence, climbed up the mountain, received the two tablets that made up the ten commandments, and came back down again. When he returned forty days later, he was greeted with the unpleasant fact that during his absence the jews had grown impatient, and had built a golden cow for them to worship. Moses grew furious, and threw down the tablets with great force, shattering them all over. He blamed Aaron for not keeping a firmer control of the troops, and forced the jews to break up the golden calf into thousands of small golden pieces, Once broken into sharp bits, Moses made the jews drink those pieces of gold in their water. His punishment imposed, he headed back up the mountain a second time, and eventually returned with what then became the Ten Commandments.

The jews were never happy during the forty years that they roamed the desert in search of the promised land. They were always hot and cold, hungry and thirsty, exhausted and frustrated. Why did it take them 40 years to reach Palestine from Cairo? Perhaps it was because GF wanted the group of former slaves to die off, so that the nation of Israel would not be founded by a group of people who had grown up with the slave mentality. It is also possible that the jews were forced to wander so long in order for them to prove their commitment to the group. It is well established in social-psych circles that hardly anything succeeds better in creating a bonded group than putting the future members through circumstances of deprivation -- and we see this done fairly often, like at EST training weekends, during Fraternity and Sorority Hazings and Hell Weeks, and by some employers who manage to convince their employees that their job is so special that it is worth giving up a social life and a reasonable salary for.

Regardless of the reason for the 40-year delay, the jews did eventually reach the Red Sea -- the final obstacle to overcome before reaching that promised land. But just as they reached the water, they saw Pharaoh's army, who had apparently been following them all 40 years in the desert, about to overtake them.

Thus, GF performed one last miracle and parted the Red Sea for the jews to pass through. And once all the jews were on the other side of the Sea, and once all of the members of the Egyptian army were in the sea's bed, GF closed the sea up again. All the jews stood on the far side of the water, and -- in horror, no less -- watched their enemies drown one by one.

Then GF told Moses that he was not allowed to enter the Promised Land (apparently due to his many instances of insubordination to GF over his lifetime), and Aaron led everyone else into Israel. Everyone received their just punishments and rewards. Or so they say.

When modern-day jews celebrate Passover, they often talk about a holiday that celebrates freedom from oppression and bigotry. The tradition in my family was to read Martin Luther King's speech, "I have a dream," in explicit hope of freedom for all oppressed people in the present. The seder meal, similarly, centers on symbols of birth and new life (an egg, greens), symbols of pain and suffering (salt water, tears), symbols of strength and passion (a shankbone), symbols of bitterness (the bitter root), and symbols of labor (charoset, or mortar-like nuts-and-fruits stew).

Some labor union activists interpret this story as one celebrating the freedom of workers; some socialists contend that it is a story of the redistribution of power and wealth; some feminists and civil rights activists celebrate it as a revolution of the oppressed against their oppressors. All those interpretations make some sense to me.

But in my perspective this is also a story about revenge and retribution, about cult indoctrination and commitment to a group, and about punishment, pain, and pursuit of a manifest destiny. But then again, I was banned from the Seder.

rant on


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Copyright 1997 Rebecca L. Eisenberg mars@bossanova.com. All rights reserved.