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We are all Egyptians today

Israelites flee Egypt

Israelites flee Egypt Image by iStock

This week Jews around the world continue to celebrate Passover. We commemorate the story in Exodus, the core narrative of Judaism: the journey from slavery to freedom. At Passover meals, we are enjoined to imagine ourselves as the Israelites of yore, freedom fighters seeking to struggle against tyranny. Some psychologize the shackles that bind, reflecting on personality traits that chain them in patterns of behavior that continue to hold them back.

This year it was hard not to highlight the plagues in the story. Many focused on the afflictions that riddle the modern world: global warning and climate change, economic inequality, or racism.

At my Passover Seder, I wondered if rather than thinking of ourselves as the Israelites fleeing bondage in search of emancipation, this year we should flip the script. Living in the Corona-verse, we are all Egyptians now.

This year we have a chance to reflect on the Exodus story from the vantage of the powerful. It allows us to consider our place in creating Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, which as Rabbi Micah Greenstein explained, means “narrow places.” It enables us to reflect on the ways in which our hearts are sometimes hardened, as was Pharaoh’s.

If we accept that we are all Egyptians now, we have to consider how we are part of the power structures that subtend the forces of oppression. We have to reflect on the meaning of our privileges and, in turn, how the institutions of which we are part distribute their resources and wealth.

The Surgeon General made clear yesterday that people of color are at greater risk from COVID-19. We have to consider why the coronavirus does not impact all communities equally. Louisiana, which is a hotspot, can serve as an example. Governor John Bel Edwards has indicated that 70% of the people who have died from the coronavirus are black, while they only make up 32% of the population. These numbers are similar in Shelby County where I live, where 66% of COVID-19 sufferers are African Americans, who account for 71% of the deaths.

If we can see ourselves as the Egyptians, it allows us to consider how we are complicit in global warming when we bury our heads rather than taking seriously the massive changes that are required to avoid the natural disasters that have already begun; Jonathan Safron Foer has eloquently explicated this denial in his latest book, We are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. But COVID-19 has taught us that it is within our abilities to turn our habits around quickly when a crisis demands it. Now we just need to see global warming as such a crisis.

If we appreciate that we are the Egyptians, it allows us to consider how we treat the workers in our businesses and the businesses we patronize. It forces us to ask if our employees are paid a living wage, and how we are contributing to their exploitation.

It makes us look around the grocery stores where we are shopping and ask why those on the front lines risking their lives are so often poor and people of color who are not given hazard pay — even though they are there so we can remain well-stocked while we insulate ourselves from harm.

The Bible is certainly not the only allegory to turn to as we reflect on the questions the coronavirus makes us ask. One of the most relevant books for this time is Albert Camus’ existentialist classic, The Plague. It is a story of an Algerian city besieged by an epidemic one spring.

The sequestration created by the epidemic poses moral questions, demonstrating the imperative of human solidarity in the face of crisis. Bumbling officials first deny the reality of the plague and then fail to lock the city down until it is too late; social distancing ensues. Though Camus recounts the courage of the clear-eyed who respond to the suffering around them, most closet themselves in social isolation, focused on their own survival.

Camus’s ultimate point is that a plague foregrounds the existential questions we all have to ask ourselves but often repress until we find ourselves in extreme situations. The plague makes evident that we are all going to die, and so forces us to examine our lives to ask what gives them meaning and purpose. It sharpens our perspective on the frailties of our country, our culture, and ourselves. It heightens the moral questions we often fail to adequately answer.

Perhaps we are still too besieged to reflect on what it means to be Egyptians today. All of our anxieties are now projected onto the silent, deadly pathogen in our midst; all we want is distraction.

But ultimately, if we are all Egyptians now, the long view will demand that we take responsibility for the choices that define our lives.

Designed by the sages of the Jewish tradition, the Passover Seder sets out to reflect upon what will redeem the world. This year’s Seder is different from all other nights because this time we are all suffering from the plague. There’s no lamb’s blood exemption; we are all Egyptians now. And like the Egyptians, we are all called to answer the ultimate questions of our responsibility for the world we have created.

If we are to redeem the world, we cannot harden our hearts. We cannot continue to make the world a narrow place where the few prosper and the many suffer. We must consider how we are going to build a promised land for all after the plague recedes.

Jonathan Judaken is the Spence L. Wilson Chair in the Humanities at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

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