Discover more from Ya'aleh: Holiday Torah for Organizers and Optimists
"a better future to fight for"
Collective safety in the time of plague
there is no
solace in rearranging language to make a different word
tell the same lie. Sometimes the moral arc of the universe
does not bend in a direction that will comfort us.
Sometimes it bends in ways we don’t expect & there are
people who fall off in the process. Please, dear reader,
do not say I am hopeless, I believe there is a better future
to fight for, I simply accept the possibility that I may not
live to see it. - Clint Smith
When we recall the Passover story as if we experienced it, we often imagine ourselves as the Israelites who left Egypt. This year, I found myself resonating with the experience of another group: those left behind in Egypt.
As Moses’ attempts to liberate the Israelites escalate, God brings the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. The Israelites had light, while the Egyptians remained in an impenetrable state of darkness for three days.
לֹֽא־רָא֞וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־אָחִ֗יו וְלֹא־קָ֛מוּ אִ֥ישׁ מִתַּחְתָּ֖יו שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וּֽלְכׇל־בְּנֵ֧י יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל הָ֥יָה א֖וֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָֽם׃
[The Egyptians] could not see one another, and for three days no one could move about; but all the Israelites had light in their dwellings (Ex. 10:23).
While the Israelites were able to continue on in the light of day, the Egyptians experienced debilitating darkness. The Israelites and Egyptians–two groups of varying identities–experienced the same moment entirely different from one another.This is happening in so many parts of our response to the pandemic. When it comes to COVID and many other systemic issues, paying attention to those experiencing darkness can move us towards collective liberation.
This year, facing the pandemic while navigating chronic illness, I have found myself feeling more in the darkness than the light. While others grasp at freedom from two years of restrictions, I desperately attempt to hold on to the physical safety that makes it possible to go to doctors’ appointments. I have heard from others experiencing health challenges, racist disparities in access to health care, and pandemic-exacerbated poverty that they, too, are struggling at this moment. While our experiences are not monolithic, I can say that, for me, the emotional distance between myself and those experiencing this chapter differently is as intense as the fear of getting sick.
What do we make of the drastically different experiences people are having in this current moment? Rabbi and chaplain Mary Brett Koplen teaches that being enveloped by light enables us to see, or otherwise perceive, those who are suffering.The Egyptians might not have been able to see one another, but the Israelites could see them; the light that enveloped the Israelites traveled with them wherever they went, even into the households of the Egyptians. Yet there’s a difference between something being lit up and being truly seen, or perceived. The latter requires an active choice. This Passover, we have the opportunity to see the things it may feel easier to look away from.
Those who feel left in the darkness right now should not be treated as a necessary casualty on the path to a brighter future. They are an essential part of how we get there. Disabled, sick, maybe even unpopular wisdom might just be what saves us all. In “You are Not Entitled to Our Deaths,” Mia Mingus writes, “What about when there is nowhere left to escape climate disaster and you cannot afford to leave the planet? Individual safety by itself is a myth. There is no individual safety without collective safety and collective safety requires that no one is safe unless everyone is safe.” Truly seeing those on the margins is vital if we are going to stand a chance against any of the monumental challenges we face at this moment.
The truth is, though this moment might be landing differently for each of us, we are all interconnected. A midrash on the Exodus teaches that not all of the Israelites actually made it out. When did those who were left behind perish? During the plague of darkness, the midrash says.
The reality that not only the Egyptians were affected by this plague, despite the initial appearance that the Israelites and the Egyptians had dramatically different experiences of this moment, is an eerie yet important reminder that our current states might not be permanent. As disability activist Rosemarie Garland-Thomson puts it, “[M]ost of us will move in and out of disability in our lifetimes, whether we do so through illness, an injury or merely the process of aging.”
The ways we encounter each other in moments of vulnerability, how we act on an individual level, have implications for any systemic change work we hope to do. “Pitting the need for state and systemic change against individual and community change sets up a false binary. Both are necessary to get out of the pandemic mess we are in, just as both are necessary for any kind of liberation we are fighting for,” Mingus offers.
For those of us who care about building a more loving, just, equitable society, we need to start with our neighbors. Who in this moment can we choose to really see? It is not an act of pity or charity, but rather one of solidarity. When we use our relative protection to witness both the suffering and the wisdom of those still disproportionately impacted by systemic injustices and respond accordingly, we take steps towards collective liberation.
There are interpretations in our tradition that speak to why the Egyptians were punished while the Israelites were not. Morality theology is a complicated business, and it is not where we’re headed today.
see “Mary Brett Koplen - senior sermon” on YouTube
Or HaHayyim on Exodus 10:23
Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael on Exodus 13:18
“Becoming Disabled,” The New York Times.
Thank you to Jess Belasco, Amelia Wolf, and Aron Wander for being hevrutot on many of the sources referenced in this piece.