Walk Like an Egyptian
Every spring, we narrate the story of our slavery at Passover as if we are, at that moment, experiencing the Exodus from Egypt. We eat bitter herbs and crunch matzah, identifying with our Israelite ancestors, a nation of slaves on the other side of freedom.
Liberation movements throughout time claim the Exodus as a foundational narrative. In Liberation Theology, Robert McAfee Brown writes, “Oppressed people today identify easily with the oppressed peoples of yesterday, the Hebrew slaves in the story.”
I know the privilege I enjoy though, and I wonder to what degree I should actually identify with the ancient Egyptians. To be afflicted with escalating plagues of environmental destruction and disease. To watch as one’s leader, hard-hearted Pharaoh, recklessly and relentlessly refuses to listen to others or change his disastrous course. To be allied with the oppressor instead of the underdog.
Brown writes, “I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that most of us who read (and write) books like this can be identified as servants in Pharaoh’s court; lower echelon folk who are nevertheless members of the establishment, with advancement possibilities if we play our cards right.”
But what role do the Egyptian courtiers play in the story? A look at the Exodus narrative shows that some servants in Pharaoh’s court actively try to do the right thing in a place where they have limited power. They attempt to stop Pharaoh, and when they fail in this, they aid the Israelites to escape Egypt.
Hearing Moses warn Pharaoh about an imminent plague of locusts, the courtiers cry out, “Let the men go to worship the Lord their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” Pharaoh is temporarily swayed by their collective voice of reason and grants the Israelites permission to leave.
After Pharaoh changes his mind, refusing to send out the Israelites, many of the Egyptians help outfit the slaves for their escape. When they are asked by the Israelites for silver, gold and clothing, the former masters give generously. Onee of the classic commentaries on the Torah sees this transfer of goods as the Egyptian people’s attempt at economic reparation – they are paying back wages for years of the Israelites’ hard slave labor.
The Egyptians teach us two crucial lessons:
1. Speak truth to those in power. The courtiers begged Pharaoh to stop his stubborn destructiveness. They, who themselves lived under tyranny, advocated for change. For those of us living in a democracy, how much more are we responsible for active advocacy?
2. Wealth is power. How can we provide helpful support to those working toward political, economic and social justice? When we enjoy wealth created through means of oppression, we must use that wealth to rectify the conditions which created it.
This week, Jews all over the world chant the biblical story of the Israelite Exodus from Egyptian slavery. We will continue to identify with the Hebrew slaves, struggling toward freedom and justice, saved by the outstretched arm of God.
Reading the Exodus this year, our challenge is to acknowledge the role we play as Egyptians in Pharaoh’s court. In his 1862 message to Congress, Abraham Lincoln warned, “We – even we here – hold the power and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free …”
How will we raise our voices and stretch out our arms for justice and liberation? Join the conversation this Sunday!