Passover: a Time for Reflection

To Jews, Passover is a festival of freedom. It is the celebration of a people overcoming slavery and obtaining redemption.

As a Jew very much devoted to my religion, I take the Passover story very seriously. That said, there is one part of the narrative that I feel speaks more to my political side than my religious. It concerns the loss of freedom, rather than the obtaining of it.

To many, the Passover story begins with the ancient Israelites already enslaved in Egypt. Another way to approach the Passover story is to consider its beginning when Joseph invited his brothers and their families to relocate in Goshen, Egypt, (hundreds of years earlier).

Just to backtrack for a moment, as you no doubt recall, Joseph's brothers, who once sold Joseph into slavery and presumed him long dead, had come to Egypt seeking relief from the drought. Joseph recognized them but they did not recognize him. After testing them a bit to see if they had grown morally, he eventually revealed himself to them, and, bearing no malice, invited his siblings and their families to move to Goshen where he could help them beat the remainder of the seven-year drought, and, as the number two man of Egypt, be able to look after their well-being in general.

There is something about this part of the narrative, politically speaking, that has always bothered me. Was the move to Goshen really a sound idea?

As far as we can tell from Genesis, Joseph met with no objections from his brothers about moving the whole mishpacha to Goshen, but let's suppose some of his brothers saw some flaws in the move idea. Let's even suppose a few of his brothers spoke up. Their conversation with Joseph might have gone something like this:

Reuben: "Are you sure moving to Goshen is a good idea. Won't we be living a little too close for comfort to that absolute dictator Pharaoh?"

Joseph: "As a dictator, Pharaoh is pretty cool. Besides, I am Pharaoh's go-to-guy, so with me, you have a brother who will look out for the family."

Simeon: "Look Joseph, I understand from your dream interpretation that we have several years left on the seven year drought. How about we move into Goshen for just the duration, and then, when the drought is over, we move back to Canaan, a safer distance from dictator Pharaoh."

Joseph: "Don't you get it? Everything is cool. I'm in with Pharaoh for life!"

Judah: "Joseph, what about after you die? Then what will be?"

An irritated Joseph: "Just trust me."

So guess what? Genesis closes with the Goshen relocation and Joseph's eventual death, and Exodus begins hundreds of years later with the Israelites finding themselves as slaves. I'm betting, during those slave years after Joseph's death and up until the time that Moses saved the day, there were more than a handful of Israelites asking themselves, "What was Joseph thinking?"

Spiritually speaking, it might be said that the Israelites had to swallow the bitter pill of slavery so that the taste of freedom would be so much the sweeter, and their revelation at Mount Sinai so much the more profound. But this is an article that seeks to raise political questions and answers, and not spiritual ones.

So how specifically did the Israelites lose their freedom? As the oral deal between Pharaoh, Joseph, and his extended family faded through time, the Israelites, no doubt, lost their freedom one pharaoh at a time. And when did they realize they were slaves without any recourse? They realized it by the time they had a "Pharaoh who knew not Joseph."

And what political insight might we gain today from the move to Goshen by Joseph's brothers and their families that eventually lead to the slavery of an entire nation? There are many and they are obvious, but they need to be said. To name a few: there is no such a thing as a good dictator. Never trust the word of a dictator. Once freedom is lost, it is next to impossible to get it back.

Finally, during this week of religious reflection for both Jews and Christians, we must ask ourselves, Is it possible that Americans might lose their freedom one day in the same way the ancient Israelites did? Yes, we could lose our freedom in increments, a president at a time rather than a pharaoh at a time. And when might we realize we are both without freedom and without recourse? We will probably understand it is too late by the time we have an unrestrained president who, rather than knows not Joseph, knows not the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

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