The story of ben Eved

My mother called me Merari – it seemed that, for her, I was born to live in bitterness. I had no name. My father was a slave, as was my mother. And so I needed no name. As a child of slavery, a child of slaves, who would himself become a slave, I lacked identity. Or, perhaps, nothingness was my identity.

That “bitterness” that led my mother to call me Merari was not because of my parents’ enslavement. It wasn’t the lash marks on my father’s back, he having been whipped by taskmasters. Nor was it my mother’s agony from watching – or suffering – the abuse of Hebrew women who carried cool water for the taskmasters who oversaw the slaves toiling in the noonday sun.

It was, rather, over the loss that my parents suffered at the hand of Pharaoh’s henchmen who took from them my older brother – my parents’ first born male. One day, without warning, they just took him. I was three years old and barely had known him. I would never forget how he cried or the agony in my mother’s eyes. I had seen the same pain in my grandmother’s eyes. She, I later learned, lost my uncle to “them” in the same way – with no reason, rationale, or warning.

When they took my brother, I didn’t understand. My parents just told me he was going to “a better place.” I listened, but didn’t really accept that even then.  Two years later, my friend who lived in a shack nearby in Goshen, would tell me that they had come for his brother too, and his parents had said the same to him.  Somehow, though, he was smarter than I. He intuited something more: that his brother’s “better place” was face down in the River. I came to conclude that my own brother would be there too – in that same “better place.”

And so, at age five, when my mother would allow me to stray from our shack during daylight – I didn’t understand why she wasn’t afraid for me, a non-first born – I would go to sit alone by the River’s edge, where I would throw pebbles at the currents. There, I found my brother’s “better place”. Every day I would see little boys floating down the River, face down. I didn’t know yet the meaning of slavery, of being a “first born”, or of death. And so I thought these boys were simply playing – immersed in a children’s swimming game. I expected to see them lift their heads in unison, and I would somehow cheerfully find my brother, and reconnect to him. I never told my parents how I watched for him always, wanting instead to walk home with my brother hand in hand on that exquisite day he would emerge from the River triumphant, the victor of this River game. I wanted to bring him to our parents as a surprise, even though I barely remembered what he looked like.

It never happened, of course. Looking back, I realize how foolish I was to believe that I was watching a swimming contest, rather than a floating funeral of Hebrew first born males. The River was their cemetery.  Perhaps I just did not want to fully understand that undeniable truth.

The River basin was narrow where I would spend my days. The water was shallow so that a grown-up could easily walk across it. Years later, I was reminded of this River when I learned that others crossed the Sea of Reeds. While I didn’t understand the boys floating downstream, I saw something altogether different on the far side. I saw the beautiful and pure princess accompanied by her cortege of handmaidens, as she would come to bathe in the mornings.

It seemed strange to me, even then. My mother had told me that the princess lived in Pharaoh’s beautiful palace on the other side of the River.  I could only imagine what that was like – although my imagination, of course, was limited by my life’s experience. A limitation that would never leave me even as advancing age would come along.

Why, then, did she come to the River so close to where the slaves lived, even if she was on the far side? Why did she want to endure, even from a distance, the putrefying stench of slavery wafting from the sweat laden bodies of our people? Why would a princess lower herself, deflate her goddess-like status, in that way? I was a no one, a no one without a name; but even I realized the great distance, far wider than a river, that divided Pharaoh’s daughter from the Hebrews who served her father in slavery.  Did the distance between the princess and us narrow as did the River that separated us? And did that narrowing, as it were, enable me to be any less of a no one?

One morning, I saw the princess immerse herself in the water on the far side of the River. As she did, though, she seemed transfixed by something, upstream from where I sat at the water’s edge. I tried to see what captivated her so thoroughly, but couldn’t.  Still, her obsessive look in that direction continued unabated, until she motioned her handmaidens to walk through the river bed with her to cross to the other side where I was.

As the princess reached dry land I furtively ran in her direction and hid behind a palm tree to watch. At that place there was a little girl in the bulrushes seated near a basket just on the edge of the riverbank. After briefly talking to her, the princess patted the little girl on the head. I couldn’t see the girl’s face or her expression. From my perspective, though, it seemed that the girl’s basket, covered with a maroon cloth, surely held something valuable. While the princess, kneeling near her handmaidens, waited with the basket smiling into it, the little girl ran quickly away on the dry land, only to return soon later holding hands with a woman who seemed much older than she. The woman and the princess then spoke – I couldn’t hear them, but when their talk was concluded, they gently embraced. The woman briefly bent down next to the basket and seemed to fix or rearrange the cloth, after which she seemed to wipe her eyes. It appeared that she placed a kiss on the cloth and then turned and left with the little girl.

After they left, the princess lifted the basket, and she and her handmaidens left with it, carrying it as carefully as any object I had ever seen carried. I thought I heard a baby cry, but the sound of crying – or was it laughter? – may have come from another direction, maybe from the little girl or the woman who were now both out of sight.

By now, the princess and her handmaidens had returned back across the River. When they arrived, the princess bowed to the ground and then seemed to almost pray toward the sun – my mother had told me that the sun was somehow a god to the Egyptians. The princess was already far away from me but her ebullience in dancing and smiling, as if some prayer had been answered for her, made me to believe that that what she had taken from the little girl was indeed a treasure.

That evening, I tried to tell my mother what I had seen that day; but she quickly dismissed it as a child’s fantasy. I never mentioned it to her again, lest she become distraught with me – the loss of my older brother, others would later tell me, had diminished her motherly warmth so drastically. The only thing I really remember of what my mother told me was that the princess, whether I truly saw her or not, was a member of Pharaoh’s court – that she, just like Pharaoh, was our oppressor, no matter how clear her skin or pure her eyes.

How I wished I knew the contents of the basket which seemed so precious to the princess, but yet, despite its preciousness, the woman and the girl – who looked so familiar to me as midwives to Hebrew women – seemed to let it go so easily.

I would see the little girl being carried back and forth across the River by the same woman whom I thought must have been her mother – although they seemed to me so much like sisters –many times after that first day. These river crossings became, to me, a ritual in which I myself had become a participant. It was almost as if they were going to visit Pharaoh himself and that somehow these visits would help persuade him to free the Hebrews from bondage – they seemed so happy and uplifted each evening as they returned.

But still, because my mother had rejected my earlier sighting of the princess as fantasy, I never mentioned my daily sojourns to her. After a time, even I came to reject what I saw with my own eyes –  how could it have been as I thought? What could I, a nameless child of slaves – a no one – possibly know or understand about these River outings?

I have asked myself many times why I didn’t simply approach the little girl to ask her where and why she was going so ritualistically. If I had done so, would she have told me? Slave children, like slaves themselves, after all, never confide in anyone they don’t truly trust lest the confidante turn out to have been in the grasp of the oppressor.

After a while, I wouldn’t see the little girl or the woman who held her hand any longer. I wondered, sometimes, whether they had remained on the far side of the River. If they could escape the hard labor of the taskmasters, why wouldn’t they? Yes, I often found it was easier to concentrate on the sinful acts of the taskmasters than on the Pharaoh’s actions; the taskmasters were always in our sights, offering us no basis to fantasize about their intent.

It is easy to say that the taskmasters lacked any concern for us, the slaves they whipped, and sometimes killed. Yet, oddly, it seemed to me the taskmasters didn’t even realize they were executioners of a sort or that they treated servants with derision and punishment. To me, they saw themselves as merely doing the job assigned to them by their Pharaoh. The evil often don’t know that they are evil, any more than the impoverished know that they are poor. And, strangely, I too didn’t see them as evil – they were simply born into a role in life, as was I, on opposite sides of the divide. My parents and others among us would speak of them in horrible terms, as murderous mamzarim. I, though, never saw a smile on their faces when they punished us. They performed their lot in life, as we endured ours.  Could I have been one of them, had I been born to Egypt?

I grew into slavery, as any child might grow into adulthood – it was seamless. As other children might learn to play their games, I would learn to perform a slave’s chores. From carrying water, to stomping on straw to use as footing to create bricks, to finally lay those bricks in the building of Pharaoh’s cities. I didn’t bother, as did others, to waste my time with daydreams that occupied the minds of foolish optimists. They believed, or somehow persuaded themselves to believe, that some miraculous “Redeemer” had been placed at birth in a basket on the River by his mother – or was it his sister? – to save him from the curse bestowed on the Hebrew firstborn.

Still, I wondered, while tossing and turning in the night, whether my unwillingness to accept even the idea of “a Redeemer” – perhaps my strategy to still my expectations – would later deny me a place in his redemption if the world was turned on its head and this improbable dream of others became reality. But why should I even have wasted time worrying over the impossible? Redeemers, I would come to learn, after all, come and go depending on the mood swings of the disenchanted – the restraints of slavery being a catalyst for the yearning “need” for a redeemer.

It all seemed so odd. We labored in pain by day, but somehow found solace that a Redeemer was in our future by night. It was almost as if life existed in two separate worlds – within the daytime’s horror of unending torment and, then, the nighttime’s dreams of hoped-for salvation. Those who understood that most dreams are simply dreams believed that the mere idea that the Redeemer was patiently waiting as an imposter/stepson in Pharaoh’s palace was an apothecary’s potion, designed to help the Hebrews make it through the day. For me, subordinating myself to a taskmaster who saw me pliable to his wishes was an easier path than delighting in a foolish daydream that would never be.

I could never quite understand it. I was angry and cynical.  If there was indeed a Redeemer, why would he choose to bide his time rather than just “redeem”?  Could it be that the Redeemer sought, most of all, the gratification of being wanted – the inward need for a groundswell of a vocalized yearning from those who struggled to gain his redemption? Perhaps this skepticism was the only way for me to make it through my slave-day.

The Redeemer would receive no signs of yearning from me. I was a slave who well knew that I didn’t deserve to be one. And if there was indeed a God – or even a Redeemer who somehow would act on this God’s behalf – they would truly want better for us. They wouldn’t want to prolong the suffering of an innocent mankind whom God supposedly cared for more than for others. I didn’t need a Redeemer. I needed, rather, an explanation. Maybe I had grown into Merari after all, always wondering why the defeated should become the faithful, rather than the faithless.

And this feeling didn’t come from nowhere. I knew my first born brother had been taken from us before I was old enough to even know him. I saw my father stumble back nightly to our ghetto, with lash marks on his back. And I saw the stain of hopelessness on my mother’s face.

As I myself grew into my own slavery I had heard a rumor that the so-called Redeemer, who came to be known to us as Moses, had persuaded Pharaoh to grant the slaves a weekly day of rest. A weekly day of rest for us, while he – Moses –  lived his perfectly lavish life in the palace.  Was this the Redeemer God sent to save us – a Hebrew who negotiated our day of rest yet did nothing when Pharaoh demanded that we build his cities and perform at the will of the taskmasters? I needed no Redeemer like this, or of any kind.

I decided just then that when that mythically glorious day of “liberation” would somehow arrive, I would choose to nonetheless die in old age near the riverbed of my youth. No, there would be no happy ending for me, nor for those who thought like me. There would surely be enough gravesites in Egypt to secure me, if not Hebrews to bury me.

The constancy of my mood had become as cold and dark as an overcast night in the desert of our misery that was Egypt. What value would there be in going to a land of promise – should there even be such a mythical place – created by a God who punished us in exile for hundreds of years, ostensibly for conduct that preceded our very existence? Indeed, was there even a reason?  Wasn’t it likely that He might imprison us once again, this time in the land of promise?  Why wouldn’t it be preferable to deal with the Pharaoh – the devil we know?

I know how this must all sound – as if I didn’t truly want a final liberation. As if I hadn’t wanted to see retribution against   Egypt through the plagues that God would visit upon them, as if I wouldn’t want to see Pharaoh’s henchmen die in the Sea.  That is not so.  But, still, I could not help but wonder –  what God would allow innocent women and children to be tortured; what God would give innocent Egyptian men no real choice to but to service Pharaoh’s whims. Could I trust this God?  Who is to say He would not visit suffering upon us in the desert after the Exodus?  No, I made my choice.  There would be neither Exodus nor glee for me. No, the only joy I can recall was at the River’s edge so long ago when that warm smile came upon the princess’s face.

Only a few of those liberated on the night of the Exodus – on the night the House of Israel departed – would come to learn that many of us chose to remain in Egypt, becoming Egyptian. Our brothers and sisters, it seemed, never looked back. Had they known, they likely would have returned, to persuade us of that Promised Land.

Lacking faith that we would reach that Land, though, wasn’t truly the reason why I would remain. Perchance irrational on my part, but somehow I feared that despite the promise of a bright future, we ourselves might become oppressors. It was what we knew.  Perhaps a slave mentality of a totally different sort.

Would the Law to be given to the Children of Israel when that moment arrives in the desert be a text articulating justice – a manuscript of undeviating equality for all mankind?  Or would those leaving Egypt – that is, those who inhabit the Land of Promise – be emboldened to treat each of those who might inhabit the Land, but had not received the Promise, as a “ben Eved”?  And, if so, would being an oppressed in the land of Egypt be any worse that being an oppressor in the Promised Land?

Born a slave, I will never be a free man. The travails of one’s youth seem to follow one to old age, and even death. I sit once again at the River’s edge – back to where I came from. My brothers and sisters left Egypt for the Promised Land. Will their past enslave them? I fear that God will find reason to deny them the inheritance of that Promised Land, troubled that they themselves won’t be true to its promise of a balanced freedom for all mankind.

*          *          *

Suddenly, my eyes open wide – the morning sunlight nearly blinds me.  Was I at the River of my childhood?  I am disoriented.  As I begin to wipe the sleep from my eyes, I see unending throngs of  Hebrews around me. As I focus, I see Moses once again as before on the night of the Exodus, this time a short distance away near the foot of the treasured Mountain. He too has gone from river to mountain. I am headed ultimately toward the Promised Land with my people, our slave chains left behind us. Yet, in spite of all I must wonder was my dream – or was it a nightmare really? – a warning; a reminder that we can never allow ourselves to replicate those who enslaved us.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers.