The sigh of slavery

The Haggadah is fascinating for what it says and for what it does not say. It tells our story of exile and exodus through rabbinic eyes. Although it starts with slavery and moves to freedom, the slavery story it tells is weak on details. We learn that we were worked hard by Egyptian taskmasters but quickly transition to songs and plagues. Our suffering lacks details. This is also true in the biblical text. In Exodus 2, we have basically one verse that speaks to our pain. “During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites in their slavery cried out, and because of their slavery, their cry for help went up to God” [2:23].

The biblical text communicates the tension but then moves on to Moses and his mission, the plagues and the Passover sacrifice. Hundreds of years of slavery are summed up in a cry. But perhaps there is something in that cry which speaks to the larger issue of the human condition when it suffers oppression. As Rav says, “A sigh breaks down half the human constitution” [BT Ketubot 62a].

This melancholic thought of Rav in the Talmud was meant to stimulate a discussion of what sighing actually did physiologically to the body. Rav substantiates this thought with a verse from Ezekiel: “Sigh therefore, you son of man, with the breaking of your loins and with bitterness will you sigh” [21:11]. The sigh draws attention to parts of the body that are broken, almost as if that specific part had its own voice. And then the very next verse is marshaled in support: “Why do you sigh? … because of the tidings, for when they come, every heart shall melt. All hands will become slack, and every spirit will faint, and all knees will drip with water” [21:12]. All of these different body parts are crouched over in suffering; bad news brings the listener to his or her knees, knees that are stained with tears.

We have sighing all over the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Psalms: “For all out days have declined in Your fury. We have finished our years like a sigh” [90:9]. Like the inhalation of a breath that suddenly releases, time passes by with a sigh. “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing … my body has wasted away” [31:10]. We sigh as the body falls apart.

The Haggadah asks us to recreate a story. In a festive mood, we tend to minimize the pain and move on quickly to redemption. But if we are to be true actors on this vast historic stage, we must try to embody, quite literally, what the experience of slavery was like. Sadly, we are assisted in this task by the many tragic accounts of slavery in this country; they can only offer the slightest glimpse into brutality. We all know about the beatings of slaves, but do we really know? And do we really know what someone today feels in his or her body when they become the victim of hate. Ta-Nehisi Coates says it baldly: “Racism is a physical experience.” He writes, “I think the body is the ultimate thing. The soul and mind are part of the body. I don’t think there’s anything outside of that. Your physical self is who you are.”

If you want to understand slavery, stop conceptualizing. Imagine yourself in the body of the slave, the harshness of the labor on your shoulders. The thinness of a tunic that cannot protect you. The sores on a back that’s been whipped. The bent neck of the one knocked over. The coarseness of the hands. The mind twisted into obsequiousness for what seems like forever. Coates writes, “I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820 if you were black and looked back to your ancestor and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves.” The body understands what the mind can never fathom: the way pain blinds us with its darkness, the darkness of a Treblinka and an Auschwitz.

This Passover, let’s tell a more honest story. Let’s sit with the pain and let it enter our very bones. We cannot get to true joy any other way. We cannot treat the stranger differently if we cannot experience the bodily pain of the stranger. Compassion lives in that sliver between us and them that collapses with a sigh. Passover is about learned compassion. I love our people, but there are few things I like less than a Jewish racist. That’s the blight of one who forgets what pain feels like. That’s not our Passover story. It’s the opposite of our story.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month. She directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow, and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. She is the author of 12 books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality. Her newest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren). She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books and wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week. She has blogged for Psychology Today, Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” and JTA, and tweeted on one page of Talmud study a day at DrEricaBrown.
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