Queer. That’s why his brothers hated him.
(Did I say that?)
“Whoever elaborates upon the story of the Exodus deserves praise.”
I’m not sure I received praise. Bemused looks from a few new friends around the Passover seder table. A shrug of the shoulders from the others. That’s Rick. For them, my addition to that part of the story of Joseph and his brothers—“his brothers…hated him” (Ex 37:4)—fit neatly into their story of me written long ago.
Long ago, my ancestors were slaves in Egypt. Then they were freed—to wander, to whine, to wonder, to wait. That’s the story we’re encouraged to elaborate on. Before this year, I hadn’t paid attention to the Haggadah’s exhortation.
A few days before our most recent seder, my son sent me “Sinai and Philadelphia,” an article by Richard Primus, his professor of constitutional theory at Michigan Law. Primus argues that traditional Judaism and American constitutional law both struggle with the “dead-hand problem”—the challenge facing Jews and Americans (with the exception of converts and immigrants) to accept “fundamental laws” established long ago “that they did not choose” and that are very difficult to change. Torah was revealed at Sinai. To get to Sinai, the Israelites first had to be freed from enslavement in Egypt. The Passover seder is designed to facilitate a process through which, ultimately, in each generation every Jew should feel as though he or she had been liberated from Egypt and set on the path to Sinai. “This is what Adonai did for me when I myself went forth from Egypt,” we read in the Haggadah, the script Jews follow in their observance of the seder, Passover’s ritual meal.
I’m sixty-nine. I’ve facilitated or participated in a lot of seders. I’ve never been to Egypt, not way back when, not in my own time. (Maybe I’ve been in Egypt all along and have never left?) In the dark, I’ve climbed Mt. Sinai (then a part of Israel) a couple of times. Jewish tradition teaches that not only were the men, women, and children recently released from Egypt present at Sinai for the giving of the Torah, but the souls of all Israelites who would be born in the future. I witnessed an astonishing sunrise or two from the top. I ate fresh pita baked there by a Bedouin over an open fire and halvah handed to me by a tour guide. I vaguely remember the charnel room in St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai. I don’t recall having been granted a glimpse of the burning bush, which, according to legend, is enshrined there. It was a place of wonder and awe, but I didn’t enter into a covenant there. I descended and returned to my job in Jerusalem.
That amazing, ornamented, technicolor coat? Jacob’s gift to his favorite son? Well, sure. But the deeper gift was Jacob’s recognizing, honoring, even celebrating Joseph’s sexuality.
As I’m telling you this, I’m on my way from Egypt to Sinai. That’s what the Jewish story says, the story in which I’ve been at home since lunch at Ponzio’s Diner after Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J. I’ve been at home in a Jewish story since I was stopped in my early twenties by a Hasid on a street in Tzfat, Israel, who asked me if I was Jewish and if my mother was Jewish and, after I answered yes to both, he told me to get in the car with him and I did. But when he asked me to quit my volunteer position and join him and his other students, formerly assimilated American-Jewish middle class young men like me, so he could reveal to me, as he had been revealing to the others, answers to my deepest questions, answers found in Jewish mystical texts, I thought about it for a minute and then said no.
Why do you think Joseph spurned Potiphar’s wife’s advances? (“…she caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside” Gen 39:12.)
I don’t think they worked, my elaborations. They didn’t take me back. I don’t think the Haggadah worked, transforming me through the “three essential texts” Primus identifies: ha lakhma anya, the bread of affliction (or poverty) our ancestors—our ancestors, not us; avadim hayinu, we (ourselves) were slaves; ki ilu hu yatza, as if we were the ones taken out followed by the next sentence, zeh asah Adonai li, this God did for me. For me.
On Shavuot, a few weeks from now, the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah, I want to stand at Sinai. But if I haven’t joined those taken out of Egypt, how can I? And do I really want to be present for the divine revelation? Do I really want to feel commanded not nudged, as I mostly do now, by Jewish law, to, say, keep the Sabbath?
To take my place among those who went forth from Egypt, do I have to leave behind the title to the 2009 Prius as well as another title, “professor emeritus”? Do I have to leave behind the deed to the house as well as the deck and screens and walls and brick walkway in need of repair? Leave behind the device that invites news and shows to stream into my palm and from there into my eyes? The familiar stories, those I tell myself about myself as well as those my family, friends, students and others tell about me and that, in their eyes, define me: do I have to leave them behind? Must I dispose of everything by which I am bound to the twenty-first century and to a particular place on the earth? Must I leave behind even metaphor (Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt also means “narrow place”), and myth (how many of us were ever actually in ancient Egypt)?
Primus notes that “[t]he opening words of Magid,” the section of the Haggadah in which we tell the story, “do not say, ‘This is the matzo which we eat in memory of the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate.’ No. The matzo we have before us is not a symbol: It is the thing itself. This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt.” Am I able to suspend my disbelief and give myself over to the text’s bold claim?
In her poem “Exodus,” Andrea Cohen writes,
The flat bread that scratched our throats was not symbolic. Neither did the bread portend of manna. It was bread. We left with the skin on our backs, with the imprint of whips. The symbols came after, finding us the way a lost dog, crossing deserts, pinpoints the master who can’t live without him.
I love matzah. Weeks after the end of Passover, I’m still eating sandwiches on matzah. For lunch, a matzah sandwich, a glass of ginger ale, and the latest news, accessed on my phone. I’m not on my way to the revelation. But the life by which I’m defined need not, finally, confine me. Imagination may deliver me to a more expansive, inclusive experience of body and mind, history and the present, the thing itself and the sign, metaphor, symbol of the thing, Philadelphia (where I’m actually from) and Sinai (where I’m actually from).
Richard Chess has published four books of poetry, the most recent of which is Love Nailed to the Doorpost. Professor emeritus from UNC Asheville, where he directed the Center for Jewish Studies for 30 years, Chess serves on the boards of Yetzirah: A Hearth for Jewish Poetry and Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, where he co-directs its Faith in Arts project. You can find him at www.richardchess.com .