Egypt Seen From Above

Representation Matters: Passover Edition

This week, in light of another wave of horrific violence against Asian Americans and another wave of hateful legislation aimed at transgender people, I’ve seen some people begin to grapple with the ways that poor representation of these and other minority groups in our culture creates a situation in which they are thought of as less than human, which makes them an easier target for hate.

With Passover approaching, I find myself reflecting back on a piece I read in 2012, when I was the editor of In building up our Passover resources, I approached Rabbi Lev Baesh, then affiliated with (now known as 18Doors) for a piece to help contextualize the Haggadah for a contemporary audience that might not be familiar with the text.

The article he wrote grapples with how to reconcile the stores situating ancient Egypt as our oppressors with an actual experience of contemporary Egypt (and contemporary Egyptians) who are not the characters of Biblical lore. What subtle prejudices are we imbibing along with our four cups of wine when we recite over and over again a story that emphasizes Eypgt as our enemy? How does this story of ancient oppression frame our understanding of the contemporary Middle East? His piece begins:

When my grandfather retired from his congregation, he became a “cruise ship” rabbi and he traveled the world with my grandmother. My first year of rabbinic school, in Israel, their ship was heading from Israel to Egypt on Passover. Every year on the ships, my grandfather created a new hagaddah for that specific voyage. I talked with him about how it seemed that a “return to Egypt” for Passover seemed like a difficult challenge when celebrating the Exodus. He reminded me that “Egypt” of the bible was a metaphor for “struggle” and “oppression” and did not have to be linked with the country. We talked about how important a sacred story can be if it, in fact, is not set in a real place or time. He explained that Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim which literally means “narrow place,” and we talked about all the “narrow places” we have in our lives like habits and prejudices, weaknesses and struggles.

Rabbi Baesh offers a solution that encourages us to ponder the Hebrew terms used in the Haggadah, both as practical tools to change the way we think of the players in the story, but also as multilayered metaphors worth investigating.

Every year, I encounter many and varied seder supplements, old and new, but for the last decade, this one has stayed with me in a way that few others have. As you prepare for your holiday this year, I encourage you to read it and hope it may similarly resonate with you.

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