Yesterday’s pharaoh, today’s tyrant. Tomorrow?
April 13, 2011
Each year at the seder, Jewish families all over the world gather to tell and reenact the age-old story of the Exodus, redemption from Egyptian slavery and oppression. Yet, in light of recent events in Egypt and elsewhere across the Arab world, when we sit down to the seder on the night of April 18 the familiar story will have a new, unexpected resonance.
A new Pharaoh comes to power in Egypt, the familiar Torah story tells us, oblivious of the indispensable role that Israelites played in rescuing his country’s economy. Pharaoh decides that the local Israelites are a security threat. He sentences them to hard labor as a way of reducing their numbers.
When that doesn’t work he instructs Egyptian midwives to make sure that male Israelite babies do not survive, and when they refuse to comply Pharaoh announces to the Egyptian people that they are to kill any such babies they see. God sends Moses to rescue His people with the help of a series of plagues on the Egyptians. Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to let the Israelites leave until the onset of the tenth plague, visited on the Egyptian first-born.
Interestingly, the biblical account places the blame solely on Pharaoh, a tyrant who ruled unchecked by any representative body, and none on the Egyptian people, who seem unenthusiastic about the oppression of their Israelite neighbors. During the seder we remove drops of wine from the glass when we recite the Ten Plagues, lest we be too joyful about the suffering of the Egyptians.
At one point his courtiers actually plead with Pharaoh — to no avail — to change policy: “Let the people go and worship the Lord their God! Are you not aware that Egypt is lost?” And when the Israelites finally are allowed to leave, “the Egyptians urged the people on.” Later on in the Torah, with the Israelites about to enter the Holy Land, they are instructed to treat the Egyptian people well “because you lived as strangers in their land.”
The account of the Exodus, then, is an indictment not of the Egyptian people, but of a political system that leaves absolute power in the hand of one man. Isn’t this exactly the evil that has aroused the fury of some contemporary Egyptians and other Arabs of the Middle East who are seeking to democratize their governments? It is surely no accident that protestors hurled the epithet “Pharaoh” at President Mubarak before he was compelled to step down and leave Cairo.
Contrast Egyptian one-man rule — biblical and contemporary — with the treatment afforded Moses, the Israelite leader, on Passover night. In the Haggada, the order of the service recited at the seder, the name of Moses is mentioned only once, in passing. Since his name is so conspicuous in the biblical tale, its virtual absence from the Haggada was clearly an attempt on the part of the authors to combat the natural human tendency to hero-worship, and counteract any Pharaoh-like pretensions within the Jewish people.
This democratic cultural trait seems to have been handed down through the generations. We Jews do not take kindly to authority! At times this is taken to almost anarchic extremes, but Israel’s rambunctious and fractious democracy, which often drives its citizens and sympathizers abroad to distraction, is looking a lot better these days, as the Jewish state stands as an oasis of representative government in a region that still must fight the battles to overcome dictatorships.
A highlight of the seder is the question, generally asked by the youngest present, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Perhaps this year we can also ask, “Why is this year different from all other years?” Let us hope that the answer turns out to be, “This year democracy and freedom came to the Middle East.”
Most important, let us help those Egyptians who truly want a democracy that will include rights and protections for all minorities, whether Shi’ites or Sunnis, Coptic Christians or Jews. This is the kind of freedom Jews of America and Israel celebrate on the night of Pesach. May it spread all over the Middle East.