Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach: Power Corrupts

Tucked away in maggid in the middle of the Mitzrayim narrative is the “Arami Oved Avi” passage, a seeming non sequitur that turns into an immediate prequel: what drove Yaakov’s family into Egypt in the first place was his treatment at the hands of Lavan.   Still, why would a passage most famously associated with the mitzvah of bikkurim make its way into the Pesach narrative?

While the timeline doesn’t necessarily add up that way—the midrash about Yosef having to go to Egypt in chains so Yaakov could go to down there in a dignified manner comes to mind—one can see historical parallels between the houses of Pharaoh and Lavan and their patterns of oppression and the nature of the power dynamics that existed.

What might follow are lessons not only about the redeemed [“us”] but whom we were redeemed from [“them”].  In other words: these paradigmatic eliminationist anti-Semites had something to gain from their attitudes and policies; they weren’t necessarily “sonei yisrael” 100% “lishmah” [not that it made them any less nefarious].

“Arami oved avi” in a way hints that the story of yetzias mitzraim actually begins with that passage, which would behoove us to examine Lavan first.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, the combination of Lavan’s sordid family history in addition to his propensity to attach a price tag to everything drove how he related even to his own flesh and blood, so it would make sense that when his power dynamic was threatened and he lost his family, he would at least have an eliminationist impulse cross his mind [as evidenced by the discussions about “machshavah k’maaseh”].

Bear in mind it takes Yaakov at least 14 years to DO anything [his breeding strategy with the sheep], and the full 20 years to SAY anything [after Lavan chases him down].  As we’ll see this is important when you consider the truth-to-power dynamics inherent in his relationship with Lavan, and Moshe’s relationship with Pharaoh.

Like Yaakov [although not quite in the same manner], Moshe is an honored member of the very household responsible for engineering the eliminationist oppression.  In a manner different from Yaakov, it didn’t take all that long for him to actually speak up effectively [as per the medrash that he asked for the enslaved Hebrews to get Shabbos off].

Furthermore, we see both antagonists pursue their aims differently in reaction to Divine messages: Lavan, as it were, backs off; Pharaoh doubles down repeatedly until he essentially destroys his own nation. 

What motivates the different responses?

Both Lavan and Pharaoh are driven by a combination of material and “spiritual” concerns.  Lavan—as indicated by Bereishis 31:2 as a starting point—finally realizes in a way that the con game he’s run is up, and his son’s reaction in the previous possuk indicates that he was beginning to feel his loss of influence and power over the other part of his own family, which would have inevitably had a further negative impact on his reputation in the neighborhood.  And finally, when he catches up with Yaakov and essentially realizes his power over them is at an end, he plaintively asks where his “gods” are.  The irony here is that Lavan still wants to hold on to the “trafim” even after G-d Himself has stopped him with a divine vision, now as if they are all he has left.

Pharaoh has similar concerns, if not in the same order.  As with most despots, his main concern is maintaining his iron grip on power and his nation's viability, as indicated a] in Shemos 1:10 where he first uses the “fifth column” threat [“hava nischakma lo”] as an excuse to subjugate the Hebrews, and b] his repeated trips to the riverbank in the morning to hide from his populace that he is, actually, less than divine.

A curious effect thus occurs:  at the same time that his feared loss of power and influence comes to pass with each plague and the concomitant devastation to Egypt, Pharaoh—who at first doesn’t completely buy into his own deification, a necessary concession to then maintenance of power—begins to actually buy into his own divinity in a way he previously hadn’t, thinking he actually can fight G-d.  Ironically—it might be all he thinks he has left.

In this way, we have an additional Pesach theme: not only to speak truth to power in the name of freedom, but to realize that since the political is almost always personal, there is always an element of the elevation of self to levels that lead to similar levels of near absolute corruption.