Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Narrow Places of Mitzrayim, or Where Do You Get Stuck?

This was the question I asked my Sunday school students as we sat around a table in the social hall having our snack of graham crackers and green grapes.* I explained that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, also means “narrow places,” and I asked them to think about where in their lives they feel the oppression of Egypt, when in their lives they feel constrained or stuck.

“School,” said one, just as our prescient congregational president/resident Sunday school teacher simultaneously said, “And ‘school’ doesn’t count!” (I shushed Mr. president/teacher.)

“Practicing violin,” said the other, with a sideways glance at her mother, enthusiastic proponent of violin lessons, sitting nearby.

This led to an interesting conversation about whether aspects of our lives that ultimately benefit us (the one child does aspire to a high school diploma, and the other loves performing violin, which she does beautifully, thanks to the despised practice sessions) could be compared to the biblical Mitzrayim, a site of bloodshed, suffering, and degradation for our biblical forebears. (The answer: No. And yes. Of course. Try it yourself, and let me know how your conversation goes.)

But the reason I asked my students this question, the reason I’m writing this in the first place**, is that I had been thinking about this question—“What is our Mitzrayim?”—during my entire drive from Jackson to Greenville on Friday afternoon. (I live in Jackson, Mississippi, I serve the congregation in Greenville, Mississippi, 110 miles away. A more coherent introduction to me and my crazy life in another post.) I was thinking about this question in conjunction with the Trayvon Martin shooting, and also, especially after reading my friend Beth's thoughtful (and poignant and brilliant) blog post, in conjunction with the shootings in Toulouse and the guilty pleadings of three white teenagers in Jackson, Mississippi to the racially-motivated killing of James Craig Anderson, a black man.

So much hate. Is hatred our Mitzrayim?

But, why the hate?

We learn from the Passover Seder that each of us must feel each year as if we ourselves left slavery in Egypt, as if we ourselves experienced the redemption. No formal commemoration, this. Not even a reenactment. This is real, Jewish tradition teaches us. Every year, we feel the oppression. And then we experience the release. We are meant to put ourselves, as nearly and as truly as possible, in someone else’s shoes sandals.

And that, in fact, is the problem. Because we can’t actually, truly walk in another person’s shoes, can we? Not simply by attending a Passover Seder. It’s the stuff of fantasy and undercover spy stories and psychological studies, the idea of experiencing another person’s reality.  

Nevertheless, it is our obligation to try, each year at Passover, and, I would argue, every day of the year: You shall welcome the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, the Torah repeatedly exhorts us. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not do to others what is distasteful to you. We are all created betzelem elohim, in the image of God. Put yourself in the other’s shoes.

Because when we don’t, it leads to injustice. The other remains other: distant, alien, threatening…. When we can’t put ourselves in another’s shoes, it opens the door to hatred.

As I drove and thought, the flat Mississippi Delta plains stretching out in every direction from under the wheels of my car, I thought a new question, a terrible question: Do people, my people, the people of my own congregation, whom I love, want to put themselves in The Other’s shoes?

Now, I am not completely na├»ve. I know that none of us always wants to put ourselves in another’s shoes. It’s hard work. The Torah wouldn’t constantly command us to do it if it were easy. Even when we want to do it, when we mean to do it, we often fail. And I know there are plenty of people out there who make bad choices, even wicked choices, who through some sad injury or perversion lose all contact with their yetzer tov, the good that God put in them, and intend ill toward others.

But I suppose I’ve always assumed that people of good will, even when we are failing to do the right thing, even when to do the right thing is difficult or unpleasant, in some part of our being, want to do it. In some corner of our consciousness feel indignation when injustice is brought to our attention, and want to do something to correct the injustice, to change and heal the world.

Beth, in her blog post, wrote, “I began to fear, not for the first time, that perhaps I have too much faith in humanity.” When I read that, I felt terribly sad for Beth, but the closer my wheels took me to Greenville, the more I began to wonder the same about myself. I began to wonder when, and even whether, people, even good people, truly aspire to walk in another’s shoes, aspire to recognize The Other’s basic humanity, especially when that other is of a different race, or class, or creed.

When I arrived in Greenville, I got ready for our Shabbat service. During the service, I shared some of these thoughts and questions with my congregation. And then, after the service, I had a conversation about all of this with a good friend, a good person, a person I have known and loved for many years, and suddenly, vividly, I saw how good people can become resigned to others’ otherness, and to hatred, and injustice. Good people can become embittered and worn down by a lifetime of slights, and insults (even as it is also a lifetime of blessings and friendship—for don’t we all too often remember the bad and forget the good?), and outrage, personal and communal.

This then, is our Mitzrayim: our failure to walk in another’s shoes. Or even worse: our failure to want, or even to try, to do so. It’s perpetuating the cycle. It’s holding us back. We’re stuck, as long as we stay here.

My religious school students don’t know this yet, which is perhaps, given their youth, appropriate. My congregants…some know it, some believe it, others not. Myself? I think I, like the rest of us, have my work cut out for me.

I have finally taken the big leap into the blogosphere partly thanks to Ima on (and off) the Bima's #BlogExodus initiative. Yes, I am a few days behind on the #BlogExodus schedule. So we're starting off on the right foot! More about myself and my blog another day.

*Wow, I had entirely overlooked the alliterative quality of our snack til this very moment! I guess I was having a great day. A gimel-ish day. A yom gadol, perhaps. But I digress.
**Aside from imabima, that is.


  1. Love this. So glad you're up and running with the blog and I'm looking forward to future posts. (And thanks for the shout-out, too :)).

    1. Thank you, and you're welcome! You're an inspiration, my friend.