By Sarra Alpert, Avodah National Program Director
The word mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, is often defined as “narrow straits,” framing the Exodus story that we recount at Passover, a narrative of emerging from a constrained existence as slaves into liberation and our identity as a people.
For many of us over the past weeks, our lives have constricted mostly to the square footage of our homes and the in-person company of family members, roommates, pets or houseplants. Activities and places we had in our regular schedules are now inaccessible. We have had to consider what is “essential” enough to justify the risk of individual and group health.
Torah scholar Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes about this idea of meitzarim (constriction) pervading Egypt during slavery: “Underlying all is fear – fear of death, fear of life. It is this fear that makes hearing, reverie and speech impossible: a defensive rigidity that narrows the channels and closes the apertures.” And yet, even in this atmosphere of fear and contraction, there are those who can imagine alternatives, who look through a widened lens of compassion and interdependence. We see the midwives Shifra and Puah, at great risk to themselves, choose to help the Israelite women save their babies when they are under order to have them killed. We see Pharoah’s daughter rescue a child from the river and raise him as her own. We see Moses come to understand himself as a witness to injustice and choose to take a stand against it.
We have found ourselves in a moment right now suffused with deep (and understandable) fear and anxiety, where we are upended, figuring out how to rearrange our lives so that our loved ones are cared for, our various needs met, on a timeline that no one can fully predict… in many ways, these are narrow straits that are so hard to see our way out of. And yet, there are pathways we do have the ability to map. We may not all be able to serve on the frontlines of the heroic medical efforts needed right now, but there are other roles for us to play, other courses for us to chart that widen what is possible, generate more ways for needs to be met. To expand rather than retreat.
The core of the Passover seder is the maggid, the telling. We retell the story so that we can re-ground each year in this foundational narrative of liberation and possibility. Zornberg continues, “In the Exodus story, of course, there is constant reference to the fact that the purpose of the story is ‘so that you can tell the tale’… redemption happens and is narrated in the Torah, so that all future generations will go on narrating. The crucial moment is the moment when a stupefied nation is aroused to listen and to tell; the health and vigor of individual and people will be indicated by their capacity to tell the story of redemption.”
How can we measure our health and vigor in this moment of fear and illness? Our capacity? Whose stories are we choosing to tell right now? What stories will we tell after this chapter is over? What will we be able to recount about what we stood up for, how we cracked open our structures to see what we could redeem, what glittering new possibilities we could build?
We have to start with the stories that are already true and that we must be willing to tell.
The true story we have to tell: that the hardest hit are those who are already hard-hit. It is not a coincidence that the map of New York City that shows the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases is almost an exact overlay for the map of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. These neighborhoods’ residents are the ones with the minimum-wage delivery and shipping jobs that the rest of us are depending on right now, who can’t afford to shelter in place and therefore have to risk their health to keep earning income and to help get groceries and other deliveries to the rest of us. These neighborhoods are also the most likely to have overcrowded housing and to have residents who are uninsured and therefore less likely to have easy access to medical advice and care.
The true story we have to tell: that we are responsible for each other. That the choices I make every day about how I spend my time and money and energy affect others. In this moment, we are thinking more expansively about the ripples of our impact. We are understanding how our choices about social distancing and other health and safety measures protect so many others in our neighborhoods and cities, others who depend on us to make those choices. How are we also trying to consider who depends on us as their employers or customers, how can we push ourselves farther in what we feel capable of in those relationships? I believe that the very least we owe each other is to make those choices with intention and ambition — that we have to reach towards the edge of what we think we can do, and then reach a little farther. I know this moment is hard on all of us. And I also know that some of us will weather this with fewer long-term consequences than others. We are all capable of at least this much: to be as broad as possible in our understanding of who we are responsible for and what our capacity is. For those of us who are secure in our own jobs and income right now, are we continuing to pay and offer support to the people who rely on us even though they can’t provide their services in this moment? Are we tipping extravagantly those who are out in the world on our behalf and thanking them for their service? Are we supporting their organizing efforts?
The true story we have to tell: of whose labor is and has always been essential, even when we have not valued it as such. Those who clean and cook and deliver and package and assemble and drive and on and on. Those whose work is deemed by our economic system to be worth less than the work of so many others who rely on the labor of those utterly essential workers, most of whom are paid a poverty-level minimum wage.
We have to tell these stories. And we have to be a part of writing the next chapters, ones where we reach for each other and for new models of what can be. We have to dream bigger than a stimulus package. As activist Sonya Renee Taylor writes:
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
We have already seen ways that we have been able as a society to shift in this moment, to imagine more grace and deeper commitment to human rights. We have seen a freeze on evictions, suspensions of student loan payments and mortgage payments, waiving of late fees by banks and other institutions. But we have to dream and act so much bigger than that. We have to make sure that those whose lives are already inhumanely constricted by incarceration are not placed right in the path of this virus. To close the detention camps. To stand up against the ongoing targeting of the undocumented (as ICE raids continue and unemployment benefits are denied to migrant workers). To not cross the picket lines of those workers who are demanding that their employers provide essential safety protections. To work towards solutions for rent freezes, debt forgiveness and guaranteed income. To insist that consistent health care and paid sick leave be accessible to all, that poverty not be a death sentence.
It is hard work. There will be more grief ahead along the way, more moments that send us back into narrow depths. In several parts of the story that don’t make it into the Haggadah, the Israelites stumble quite a bit along their path to liberation; it was of course not as simple as leaving Egypt, just as the pathways out of this moment will not be as simple as leaving the virus behind. Even as they learned autonomy, the Israelites had moments of reverting to being kashe oref, stiff-necked, times when they could not look beyond the familiarity of the narrowed gaze.
It can be overwhelming to imagine ourselves on the other side of the sea, of the desert, of isolation, of harmful systems rooted in white supremacy, patriarchy and classism. But I draw inspiration from the concept of avodah. How can we serve? What can we sacrifice? How can we approach each other with worship and awe? How can we do the work, together?