The Passover story: on precarity

I want to make a little more of Passover this year. It’s not that I’m religious—apart from some traditional foods and last night’s dinner, the only vestige of religious observance I perform is one annual fast for quite personal reasons—just that the story strikes me as immensely powerful and eternally relevant. I don’t observe the usual Jewish custom of going without leavened bread for 8 days, but I do like the idea of having some mindfulness of the occasion for longer than just one evening. So this year I’m going to try and write something about the Passover story and why I find it so compelling for each day of the festival.

The broad messages are “we were slaves and now we are free”, and the mission of making that statement as universally true as possible, which it certainly isn’t today. But there are many other themes worth paying attention to. The first is at the very outset. At the end of Genesis, the Israelites are doing very well in Egypt, having been handsomely rewarded for Joseph’s good counsel to the Pharaoh, and the brothers having all reconciled. There’s an unspecified gap in which some generations pass and the Israelites continue to thrive, until very abruptly:

Exodus I:8-11 “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal craftily with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.”

The fate of the Israelites comes crashing down, from thriving to slavery, overnight just because the new ruler is afraid of them. It keeps falling too. By the end of Chapter 1 it’s deterioted to attempted genocide:

Exodus I:22 “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.'”

One thing to note is how much Pharaoh’s rhetoric prefigures that of the worst kinds of racist today. “There are just too many of those people… they’re so different from us that we can’t trust them… we’d better keep them down so they don’t become a Fifth Column.” And he knows better than to act alone: each time he makes a move against the Israelites he tries to co-opt his citizens into the hatred. The Israelites only survive because some of his citizens (who I’ll come back to in a later post) refuse to be co-opted so:

Exodus I:17 “But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men-children alive.”

To me, the biggest lesson from all this is a reminder that no matter how well things seem to be going for us, good fortune is always somewhat precarious. It’s something that most people are all too willing to forget. This manifests itself in smugness and complacency, but also in a maddening lack of empathy from those who are doing well right now for those who aren’t.

How much better would the world be if everyone remembered that at the peak of good fortune we’re only ever seven verses away—or one car crash—from the bottom of the pile?

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