Coronavirus

Fellowship from Plague: Lessons from Passover

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Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan

Few of us have experienced a transition from bondage to freedom, let alone one that was facilitated by a divine hand. As such, it is usually quite a challenge for us to fulfill the Haggadah’s call “to see oneself as if we left Egypt.” This year, the challenge seems even tougher: with so many of us effectively under house arrest and unable to celebrate with our families, never have we felt so unfree!

Yet I’d like to suggest that our current predicament actually provides us with unusually good insight into the experience of the Exodus, one that makes it easier to understand a seemingly troubling aspect of our ancestors’ behavior. Moreover, this insight carries deep lessons for the meaning of Passover and for how we should reckon with today’s enormous social challenges. In short, the night of the Exodus included an astounding two-sided act of eroding social barriers and the myths that support them, and this act should guide us as we rebuild our post-pandemic society.

The Offer to Share Erodes Status Differences

What “troubling” aspect of the Exodus do I have in mind? The fact that on the night of the last plague, that of the First Born, the Children of Israel stopped on their way out to “borrow” fine utensils and garments from the plague-stricken Egyptians, with no apparent intention to return them. In his review of the millennia-old discussions on this question, R. Elchanan Samet[1] argues persuasively that the term she’ilah should probably not be translated as “borrow” but “share.” But this does not really remove the problem, because sharing implies that the other will also have an opportunity to use the property again, and that was not our ancestors’ plan. The ethical tension here does not go away even if one argues that the Israelites were justified in asking for restitution for their stolen labor or that they could no longer give the valuables to the Egyptians to use after the Egyptian Army attacked and caused them to flee across the Sea of Reeds. In short, if our ancestors knew the plan was never to return, they should have asked for the Egyptian valuables outright! Indeed, the text also says that we “stripped” (Exodus 12:36) the Egyptians of their valuables. That seems hard to justify.

In a Lehrhaus essay written for last Passover,[2] I argued that there are strong hints in the biblical text at an answer to this question. The key idea is that there was a deep moral flaw in Egyptian culture, one for which the Egyptian agreement to share with the Hebrews was a fitting correction, or tikkun.  In brief, the problem with Egyptian culture (at least in the biblical account) was its rigid social hierarchy and especially how it treated strangers—and Hebrews in particular—as beneath them and even as subhuman.  The most striking example of this tendency is how Joseph and his brothers (or at least their Hebrew cultural practices such as shepherding) were regarded as to’evah—abominable or taboo—such that the Egyptians would not break bread or live with them, even though Joseph had been made a viceroy (see Genesis 43:32; 46:34)!  The view of the Hebrews’ practice as taboo is emphasized again in the Exodus story. After the fourth plague, when Pharaoh finally begins to soften his position and offers that Israel can offer sacrifices in Egypt, Moses counters that this is impossible: “It would be an abomination to Egypt that we would sacrifice to the Lord our God; could we sacrifice an abomination to Egypt before their very eyes—wouldn’t they stone us?” With this in mind, the reversal of the Egyptians after the tenth plague is astounding. The Israelites follow God’s command to slaughter the paschal lamb, committing public abominations right before their Egyptian neighbors. And instead of being seen as offensive and worthy of stoning, Israel and Moses find favor “in [the Egyptians’] eyes,” and the Egyptians willingly share their valuables with them.

Now observe how the sharing—rather than giving or exchanging—by the Egyptians is key to this reversal, and the dismantling of Egyptian hierarchical myths in general. Here’s the heart of the explanation I offered in last year’s essay:

If the goal is to achieve fellowship between two people, sharing is actually more effective than a gift (even if there is an expectation of reciprocity). Gifts from higher status to lower status members of society are not uncommon; they may be well-intentioned but they also reinforce social hierarchy. What better symbolizes equality is the exchange of gifts. And paradoxically, sharing is even better for this purpose. Not only does it avoid the problem that the gifts may not be of commensurate value, it can blur the “line of touchability.” If I am willing to use what you have used, to wear what you have worn, I am saying louder and more credibly than words ever could that I am no better than you.[3]

The “stripping”—nitzul—of the Egyptians fits with this theme. Shorn of our garments and especially our finery, we stand naked and without pretense. Accordingly, the other use of this verb occurs later, when Israel repented for the sin of the golden calf and also presented themselves without pretense (Exodus 33:6). What finery were these ex-slaves wearing then? Presumably, the same finery: they were repeating the act of the Egyptians with parallel significance.

It is worth pondering for a moment how difficult it must have been for the Egyptians to admit that they were no better than the Hebrews. There were apparently cultural myths that went back many generations. And consider (as hinted by the text[4]) how these myths must have been reinforced over the years of bondage. As in other caste societies (e.g., the Jim Crow south), it undoubtedly would have carried significant social risks for Egyptians to do anything that could be construed by their peers as treating the Hebrews as equals. And yet somehow at that moment, they saw the truth. Indeed, the text takes pains to emphasize that the Egyptians did not hand over their valuables under duress. Indeed, the biblical term to “favor in one’s eyes” consistently means something like to see beyond one’s default, negative assessment of someone and appreciate something under the surface.[5] The Egyptian willingness to share depended on their recognizing that the Egyptian hierarchical myths were just that, and that the Torah’s message that all are equal before God was true.

The Request to Share Erodes Social Distance

The theory so far only considers the issue from one side—i.e., why sharing by the Egyptians is a fitting correction to their culture’s problematic flaws. But what about Israel’s actions? One possible answer is that in fact, there is something problematic in what Israel did; accordingly, there is strong evidence that one month later, Israel suffered from a severe bout of survivor’s guilt.[6]

My own personal experience of the pandemic this year has led me to recognize yet another angle on this question, one that suggests that just as the Egyptians undertook a remarkable act of myth-breaking fellowship, our ancestors did the same.

What do I have in mind?

The key is to consider our current experience of sheltering-in-place to protect ourselves from a plague, and use it to imagine what it would have been like to live through the night of the tenth plague. Just as then, we are cowering in fear before the “plague destroyer” (Exodus 12:13). Just as then, it feels as if “there is a loud cry” in the land as there is “no house where there is not someone” stricken down by the plague (Exodus 12:30). Just as then, the plague is (as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently put it) the “great equalizer.”[7]

And just as then, we are in our homes, with our doorways as our main protection. A major incident in my home recently was when a miscommunication about our protocol in receiving deliveries led to a stranger being admitted to our home and a package being dropped off; this took less than a minute but it was the source of significant anxiety. My guess is that this would be true in your home as well. And this reaction would have been unthinkable for any of us just weeks ago.

Now let us consider the scene at our ancestors’ doors as if we were there. In the midst of this terrifying plague, word somehow gets to you (via a terrifying knock on the door perhaps) that Moses says it’s time to leave—in the middle of the night, even though Moses had explicitly said that “no man should leave the doorway to his home until morning”—that until morning, only the blood (from the paschal lamb) on the doorway would provide protection from the “destroying plague” (Exodus 12:22-23). And now, not only must you muster the courage to go through that doorway, not only must you go before you are well-provisioned for the perilous journey ahead, you must take a detour to your neighbors’ plague-stricken houses and ask to borrow their valuables (Exodus 12:34-35)!

What would you do? Would you stay in your homes or would you follow Moses’s new instructions?[8] If you were married, would you and your spouse have an easy time working this out between the two of you? Would you head out in the middle of a plague when it seems that you and your family are safe in your home? Would you do so when it seems that your household has been spared by a protective measure that you would be leaving behind? And would you head into a home that was struck by the plague in order to interact with these people? Would you ask to share the very clothing they were recently wearing? Would you ask to use the utensils they had recently used?

One does not need to know about the germ theory of disease in order to be extremely reluctant to do these things. As discussed in two recent Lehrhaus essays (by Miriam Reisler and Jeremy Brown), the Talmud (Bava Kama 60a) recommends that one should shelter in place during a plague, and the idea is likely quite ancient. The prooftext for the Talmud is this very story. The implication is that the smart thing to do in this situation is to stay indoors! And if staying in your home is just common sense, that’s kal va-homer (a fortiori) the case for not going into someone else’s plague-stricken home and interacting with them and using their things. Who would do that?

The obvious answer is: someone who was confident that this was not any plague but a divine one, one that was targeted and from which everyone but those targeted would be protected. Moreover, one would have to be highly confident in God’s human emissaries, the elders who had transmitted Moses’s original instructions (Exodus 12:21) and those who were knocking on your door now, even though their instructions had been updated (leaving at night, approaching the plague-stricken Egyptians).[9]

Just as the Egyptians needed to get over their abomination of the Hebrews and the myths that supported it, our ancestors would have had to get over their fear of the randomness of plague and of catching it from the families of those stricken by it. They also would have needed to transcend their instinct to believe that the blood of the paschal lamb had magical powers. They would have to believe there was in fact divine logic underlying what was going on, such that neither they nor their Egyptian neighbors (except for their first born) were threatened.

To be sure, just as the Egyptians would have had good reason by the tenth plague to doubt the myths about Hebrew inferiority they had imbibed from childhood, our ancestors would have had corresponding reason to believe that God was in the process of redeeming them. After all, they had largely been spared from the earlier plagues. Moreover, they had taken the very big step of slaughtering the paschal lamb and they had not been attacked. And finally and crucially, the elders had told them in advance that the tenth plague would happen tonight and that they would be spared—which was indeed the case so far. But with all that, it still would have been a big step to venture out that door and approach the Egyptians with the request to share their valuables. And yet they did take that step, apparently because they had sufficient confidence that they could see beyond surface appearances.

Put differently, just as the Egyptian willingness to share with our ancestors represents an act of fellowship that disrupts traditional status hierarchy and its supporting myths, our ancestors’ willingness to enter Egyptian homes and ask to share with them represents an act of fellowship that disrupts the social distancing-based myths associated with plague. The request to share and the agreement to share thus was a two-sided act that effectively undermined critical age-old myths about social barriers: the stranger as inferior; the stranger as source of contamination.

Conclusion

Let us conclude with two implications for how we think about Passover and the Exodus, and then with implications for our past-pandemic world.

First, as we read just a few days ago, the Haggadah tells us that we eat matzah on Passover “because there wasn’t enough time for our ancestors’ dough to rise before the Blessed One Holy be He revealed Himself to them and redeemed them.” But why is the fact that they left before their dough rose so significant? Perhaps it’s because it signifies their willingness to leave the apparent protection of their homes and venture into plague-stricken ones with the faith that God was behind the plague and that He, not their blood-coated doorways, was their protector. Together with their willingness to sacrifice the paschal lamb and risk Egyptian opprobrium, this act of leaving at a time and in a manner that ran against their every instinct signals that our ancestors were active partners in their redemption.[10] This explanation is consistent with the interpretation of the crucial verse of Exodus 13:8, as “it is in merit of this set of actions by Israel (symbolized by the unrisen dough) that God did this for me when I left Egypt.”

Second, while the theory developed here emphasizes the pro-social symbolism of a request to “share” from someone who would otherwise be shunned, it is still hard to be comfortable with the idea of asking to share something when you do not plan on returning it or with “stripping” your neighbors. At a narrow level, it is worth recalling that the real test of Israel’s intentions to share never occurred. This test was obviated by Pharaoh’s move to mobilize the “people” to support a cavalry attack on our unarmed ancestors in order to re-enslave them despite the fact that they had turned back, with no clear plan for exiting the country (Exodus 14:1-5). Once our ancestors were forced to flee across the Sea of Reeds, there was no turning back.

But at a deeper level, the question remains, and perhaps is meant to resonate through the ages. Consider a framing of it that makes it quite contemporary: When another people rejects your request that you share valuable property to which you both have claim, and attacks you instead, what do you owe them? The question is perhaps most poignant when the leadership of that other people was unelected and corrupt:[11] Should the common people suffer when they are duped by their leaders? And if we turn a cold shoulder to those people and tell them that they had their chance and are now history’s losers, perhaps this suggests that we weren’t sincere about wanting to share in the first place?

No one said redemption would be easy, and it is thus no surprise that our ancestors feel a measure of survivor’s guilt—one that is institutionalized in the sanctification of the first-born (Exodus 13:11-14), which symbolizes the important truth that our children have no greater claim to life and property than theirs.[12] And it is notable that Moses enjoins Israel “Do not abominate the Egyptian” as the Egyptians had done to our ancestors (Deuteronomy 23:8).[13] The price of victory (even in a just war) over a foe who is just like us (such that we could imagine behavior the same way if the shoe were on the other foot) is a certain degree of ambivalence and discomfort; the question is whether that feeling can be productively channeled: Will we remember that we are no better than they? Will we behave towards them as we would have wanted them to behave towards us if we had lost?[14]

Beyond the foregoing implications, it is worth reflecting on how our present moment in history carries both great risk and great opportunity when it comes to following the Torah’s strong hint that we must overcome the myths that promote the idea that the stranger is inferior and/or that the stranger is a contaminator. On the one hand, boundaries between groups are going up everywhere in the world. Rumors are flying about how various nationalities are responsible (did you notice that everyone is suffering?). This is even true within countries: my home state of Rhode Island recently tried to keep New Yorkers out. Indeed, from the time my son and I returned to Boston from New York two weeks before Passover, we self-quarantined on a floor above the rest of our family; in this case, our doorway was apparently insufficient to protect our family from one another.

Yet while our separation from each other may look like we are recoiling from one another in horror, we all understand how contagion works and that this says nothing about the worth or threat that any one group poses to the other. To the contrary, it is widely reported that there has been an explosion of social contact: we are all “zooming” with far-flung family members and we are reaching out to ties that have frayed. We are showing one another how much we care, even when we are not physically close. There is great possibility in the present moment because we can see clearly that we are all naked before the virus and that we are all in this together. This should give us some hope that once we are able to be out and in nearer proximity to one another, our social foundations will be stronger than they were before.

An ironic cause for optimism in our ability to see beyond surface realities lies in our very use of the epidemiological term “social distancing.” My sociologist colleagues and I are uncomfortable with this term because for about a century, we have used the term “social distance” to mean the tendency for two people not to have social relations with one another. Political scientist and disaster-recovery expert Daniel Aldrich has expressed similar discomfort and has launched a somewhat successful campaign that we should use the term “physical distancing” rather than social distancing so that it is clearer that we should promote social relations even while taking care to keep physically apart. This seems like a laudable effort, but at the same time, the explosion of social outreach that is afoot suggests that the problem is not too serious. Even if it is difficult for societies to coordinate on the change of a label once it has gained widespread use, we may still be able to ignore its surface meaning and coordinate on the deeper meaning.

A similar lesson about our ability to see beyond surface-level social barriers that actually provides a foundation for stronger social bonds may be found in Jewish dietary practices in general and those particular to Passover. On the surface, it might appear that in refusing to eat non kosher food and to share utensils with those who eat non kosher, we are following the Egyptian model of looking down on others refraining from engaging in a consummate act of human fellowship: to “participate with them in the common human activity of restoring the body through food.”

And yet, anyone who knows Jewish dietary laws and associated traditions knows that there is little in the Jewish tradition that says that Jewish dietary practices are superior to others. In fact, the rabbis encouraged us to view non-Kosher food as appealing but to refrain from eating it simply because God has commanded it (see Rashi on Leviticus 20:26).[15] Similarly, while there are various homiletic interpretations of why we refrain from eating hametz (leaven) during Passover, we do it because we are commanded and that’s pretty much it; none of us has negative associations with it the rest of the year. Indeed, even the Shabbat—with which we Jews have a “love affair” that builds tremendous communal strength—does not imply any negative attitude towards the calendars that non-Jews maintain (see Beitzah 16a).

More generally, every social group is sustained by traditions that build internal cohesion and bind earlier generations to later ones. To outsiders, this may sometimes look foreign and off-putting. But strengthening the bonds within our own family does not necessarily hinder our ability to build strong relations with others.[16] To the contrary: our families are where we learn how to connect and share with others (including those who may indeed be our rivals!) and this foundation makes it possible for us to do the same for those who are outside our families. As such, our experience of Passover too carries a basis for optimism in a way: what may look like the construction of artificial social barriers may actually facilitate our ability to transcend them. The key is to recognize the other as fundamentally like oneself, not someone to look down on or to be afraid of simply because they are not you.


[1] Elchanan Samet, “She’ilat Ha-keilim through the Lens of the Apologetic Commentary and the Lens of Other Commentary” (Hebrew), in Iyunim be-Parashat Hashavuah Volume 1, Series 2, ed. Elchanan Samet (Jerusalem: Hotza’at Ma’aliyot, 2004).

[2] Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Where is the Justice in the Tenth Plague?The Lehrhaus (April 18, 2019). Accessible at https://thelehrhaus.com/timely-thoughts/where-is-the-justice-in-the-tenth-plague/.

[3] Ibid., section beginning “The Tenth Plague as Antidote for Egyptian Taboos.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, “Why Do We Deserve God’s Favor?The Lehrhaus, (January 25, 2018). Accessible at https://thelehrhaus.com/scholarship/why-do-we-deserve-gods-favor/.

[7] “From the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the firstborn of the maidservant behind the millstones, to every first-born of the livestock” (Exodus 11:5); “every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from man up to and including livestock” (Exodus 12:12); and “from the first-born of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the first-born of the captive, who is in the dungeon (beit ha-bor), and every first-born of the livestock” (Exodus 12:29).

[8] While the idea of approaching their Egyptian neighbors to share their valuables had come up twice before (Exodus 3:22; 11:2), these are communications between God and Moses; there is no evidence that he had yet told the people this, and good reason to think that he had not, as he did not include it in his instructions to them about what to do on the night of the Exodus (12:21-27).

[9] Various commentators suggest that they in fact did not leave until the morning. But this is not the plain meaning of the text, which states that the Egyptians “hurried them out at night” (Exodus 12:33).

[10] As R. David Bigman writes (“My First Born Son Israel: On the Birthright and Responsibility” (Hebrew)), “Via the drawing of the (paschal) lamb prior to the designated time, Israel transitioned from being passive observers in the events (of the Exodus) to assume the status of active participants. From that point they weren’t only subjects, servants of God, but partners with the Omnipresent akin to being His sons.” Accessible as part of the booklet Homilies for Passover (Hebrew), by R. David Bigman (2020), accessible at http://www.maalegilboa.org/files/חוברתלפסח.pdf

[11] And what if that leadership’s autonomy was limited by forces out of its control, including divine intervention (Exodus 14:4)?!

[12] Op cit., “Why Do We Deserve God’s Favor?

[13] Op cit., “Where is the Justice in the Tenth Plague?

[14] Thanks to several friends, including David Brock, Simeon Seigel, and Yael Unterman, for pushing me to address this issue.

[15] Beyond that, there are various rabbinic restrictions that remain in place and that were originally meant to ensure that Jews did not eat or drink items that were implicated in pagan worship. This is consistent with the dim view our tradition takes of “idolatry,” though in practice (and especially in modern times) it involves no active efforts to sanction alien forms of worship and certainly has no implications for Jewish dietary laws. The larger point is that it is quite possible for a community to maintain rules about its diet (and other forms of cultural expression) without it being a negative commentary on others. Indeed, even the prohibition against intermarriage can be understood in positive terms as the promotion of communal and intergenerational cohesion; especially insofar as others (regardless of race or ethncity) can marry into the group after conversion, it has no necessary negative connotations (see Elli Fischer, “Michael Chabon’s Sacred and Profane Cliché Machine,Jewish Review of Books (June 13, 2018). Accessible at  https://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/3239/michael-chabons-sacred-and-profane-cliche-machine/.

[16] While a long literature in social psychology has promoted the idea that ingroup favoritism and outgroup biases are two sides of the same coin, more recent research has largely dismantled this idea. For review, see pp. 1278-9 in Catherine T. Turco and Ezra W. Zuckerman, “Verstehen for Sociology: Comment on Watts,” American Journal of Sociology 122:4 (January 2017): 1272-91.