Columns, Opinions

Steinman ’19: Strangers in the Land of Egypt

By
Opinions Editor
Sunday, April 2, 2017

As we near Passover next Monday, I am reminded of a story told each year about five rabbis living in Roman times. After the traditional Passover meal, they are said to have sat up all night recounting the story of Exodus: How the Israelites were kept as slaves in Egypt, how God cursed the Egyptians with 10 plagues and, finally, how the Israelites were redeemed and led toward the Promised Land. Baffling their students, they told and retold the tale until it was time for morning prayers, finding new meaning with every recitation. This story speaks to the power of the Exodus narrative to be constantly reinterpreted, a process which continues to this day. It is a story which has been reapportioned across literature, artwork and political rhetoric for thousands of years.

In particular, the Exodus narrative has long been viewed as an overarching theme in American history. In a recent column in the New York Times, David Brooks went so far as to blame the current state of American politics on Exodus’s fading relevance as an “organizing national myth.” The story, in his view, gave an order and purpose to the great movements of peoples — like Puritan colonization, westward expansion and Great Migration — that shaped American history. He then takes it one step further, inexplicably blaming social justice movements as the cause of this decline. He writes, “American history is taught less as a progressively realized grand narrative and more as a series of power conflicts between oppressor and oppressed.” There is plenty to take issue with here — namely that those grand narratives came about precisely because of oppression. Brooks carefully skirts around this omission by bizarrely implying that Frederick Douglass and Langston Hughes experienced the Exodus narrative in the same way that the Pilgrims did.

Still, Brooks is right about two things: Societies are most unified and functional when tied together by great national narratives, and the story of Exodus suits America. But both Exodus and American history are messier than Brooks acknowledges; both involve accomplishments to take pride in and moments of quandary and moral failure. Viewing America as an Exodus tale requires an honest historical reckoning, and an understanding that we have been sometime-Israelites and sometime-Pharaohs — an understanding that will make us stronger as a nation, not weaker.

In his seminal work on nationalism, “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,” Benedict Anderson writes that nations depend on a link to their “glorious past” in order to maintain a hope for a shared future. Shared stories can connect people who have very little in common aside from an American (or French, or Brazilian) identity. But those stories can only signify American-ness if they represent the experiences of all Americans — not just those who have traditionally held positions of power, nor just the “real Americans” of the heartland, but also the recent immigrants who came here because they saw a narrative worth retelling and contributing to. America’s story has been told both by those who have had microphones handed to them and by those who have been forced to shout to be heard above a whisper. To pretend that our national myth is a calmly told, linear fable with a moral at the end, as Brooks does, is to ignore what America has been and to underestimate what it can be.

In a time when we can’t seem to agree on whether or not basic facts are true, the task of constructing an “organizing national myth” seems almost too great to imagine. Religious narratives in particular are not applicable or relevant to everyone, and the American narrative does not have to be shaped by Judeo-Christian traditions. And a good argument can be made that misguided and antiquated myths — like a bygone American greatness in need of restoration — have done a good deal of harm. But just as the Exodus story is told and retold, critiqued and re-examined each Passover, deliberating on our past can teach us a lot about who we are. While exclusion and erasure dominate the national conversation, and walls are erected at our borders and around our institutions, Exodus — Biblical and American — can be one of many stories that remind us of the importance of compassion and aiding the oppressed because we were among them. It reminds us of the injustice that we’ve come from and that we are committed to fighting.

Brooks sees the Exodus narrative as a story that occurred in the past, ignoring the fact that the storyline is still ongoing — and its lessons hold true today with a stronger urgency than ever. The Passover story has never been confined to the past. For thousands of years, it has been traditional to tell and retell the story, and at the end of the meal to acknowledge that slavery and oppression persist around the world and at our very own doorsteps. Exodus is not about the past; it is about actively ensuring a better future for those still enslaved. As we say to close the Passover meal, next year, may we all be free.

Clare Steinman ’19 can be reached at clare_steinman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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