Sunday, April 01, 2007

By Popular Demand

Having been cajoled, urged, regaled, encouraged, harrassed, prodded and physically threatened (ok, not quite, but you'll allow me some dramatic license, right?), I now humbly present the long-awaited sequel to my Purim post, viz.

The Pesach Post!

(Drumroll, please)

Trrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr TING!

(Thank you).

(Pause for dramatic effect. The lights are dimmed. Chords are struck. Somewhere, someone coughs)

And it came to pass, as it so often tends to do in this genre, that the Book of Genesis ended and the Book of Exodus began. Those of you who've done your reading for this class will know that at the end of the Book of Genesis (nothing to do with Phil Collins), the Children of Israel (who at the time were the actual children of a guy called Israel), had left Israel (the place) together with Israel (the person) to escape famine, and had gone to Egypt (the place, there was no person called Egypt) since their collective brother Joseph (and half brother for some, and whatever it is when you're the son of your brother's mother's concubine for several of the others) had made it big in Egypt, having been, variously:

* sold into slavery by selfsame aforesaid brothers;
* dragged down to Egypt the hard way;
* bought;
* hit-on aggressively by his master Potiphar's wife (which should not have been as much of a shock to him as is generally reported, Potiphar being a eunuch) - whom he politely refused, not being into that kind of thing;
* thrown into prison for not being into that kind of thing;
* forced to share a cell with such hardened criminals as the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker;
* urged to successfully interpret their dreams, essentially sending the baker to his death and reminding the butcher and the candlestick maker that they hadn't really dreamt at all, thanks all the same, it was more of a sort of recollection really, and they'd rather not go into the details, if he didn't mind terribly;
and finally
* dragged before the king himself (who was not actually called "Egypt"[1], per se, but who was Egypt with a Capital E, in the words of Saint Andrew Lloyd Webber), there to interpret a strange dream about livestock and grain. Joseph's interpretation so pleased the king, that he immediately put him in charge of the local breakfast cereal industry.

The stuff soap opera writers wouldn't even dream of making up.

And so the Book of Genesis ends on a happy note. Joseph, and the brothers who would have sold him on e-bay had it been around at the time, lived happily ever after, subsisting on cornflakes.


At least, that is, until the Book of Exodus (nothing to do with Paul Newman).

For, as the Book of Exodus tells us, a new king arose in Egypt "who knew not Joseph" (something he had in common with Potiphar's wife, it would seem). This was unfortunate for the descendants of the Children of Israel who had, in the meantime, become a bit of a multitude.

This second king was also, somewhat inconveniently, called "Pharaoh"[2]. This Pharaoh did not like multitudes. They gave him the willies. And so, as soon as he discovered that there was a multitude doing horrible multitudinous things out on his land, he decided to make their lives unpleasant with unpleasantness. He commanded them to build him store cities for him to store things in[3]. This was certainly unpleasant, but the Guild of Evil People got wind of it and emailed Pharaoh, telling him that this wasn't a punishment that entitled him to use a demonic laugh, particularly since the Children of Israel were not really expert stone masons (that particular conspiracy theory was to come much, much later in time), and as evidence, they pointed to the fact that the Children of Israel were using mashed nuts and raisins as mortar[4]. Presumably, they pointed out, not unreasonably, it would have been more efficient to use knaydlach, which has the culinary quality of being able to stop almost anything.

So Pharaoh, being a paid-up member of the Guild of Evil People and not wanting to be laughed at at the next meeting, came up with more and more dastardly plans until finally, he ordered that all of the first born male children of the Children of Israel (the grandchildren of Israel, perhaps?) would be thrown into the river! (This punishment will resonate at the end of the story, so you might want to highlight it for later). At this point, the anonymous Pharaoh sat down and gave a hearty Bwaaaaaaaaaaaahahahahaha as is the wont of heinous villains the world over.

But one woman, whose name was Yocheved (which was horribly mispronounced Joshabel by the Cecil B. DeMille crowd, for some inexplicable reason), managed to get her son to freedom where, by a twist of narrative imperative, he grew up as if he were the son of the very same wicked and evil king.
(Insert ominous music here)


Now, the old Pharaoh died (this is a recurring theme, you will note), and his son took over as the new Pharaoh. In a break from tradition and as a slap in the face of his ancestors, this Pharaoh did have a name, and it was: Yulbrynner. Pharaoh Yulbrynner was topless, somewhat dashing, appropriately brooding, and just a tad camp in his Egyptian style skirt thing, and was, in fact, moonlighting as the King of Siam at the time. He was lucky, though, since neither position required terribly much of a time investment on his part, and though Egypt and Thailand were, in that era, connected by a land bridge known, in the ancient tongue, as "Asia", they were sufficiently far apart for the peoples to have never noticed, even though (and this is important and will be in the end of term test) both movies were made in 1956! Coincidence? I think not.

Now Moses (the name of the boy who'd been saved by his mother by being sent upriver in a little basket where he was picked up by Princess Left-Titty and raised as a son of royalty) had grown up to become Charlton Heston, and therefore typecast, which really wasn't his fault. Upon discovering this sad fact, Moses understandably grew very upset and rather righteous, and decided that he would go out and seek his roots. What he found did not please him, to say the least.

For he found that his people were being oppressed with oppression, forced to make bricks without using straw, and build buildings without using charoset; the Egyptians had them in bondage, and they weren't really into that either.

Moses, being the Charlton Heston that he was, was duly enraged, and smote an Egyptian taskmaster with smiteness. Despite the fact that he was equal to the king, and obviously superior to the taskmaster, who was essentially no more than a slave himself, Moses decided to flee to the wilderness and grow a really long white beard. Just in case.

Upon his return to Egypt after a good deal of time talking to trees and studying at a local ashram (and marrying one of the Guru's daughters), Moses founded a gospel choir with his brother Aaron on vocals and his sister Miriam on the timbrel (whatever that is), and went to perform for Pharaoh. After trying a few magic tricks which he'd learned in the wilderness, to little effect, they broke out into the Spirituals. They had finished "Let My People Go" and were about to start "Michael Row The Boat Ashore" when Pharaoh Yulbrynner (who had just finished a musical number with Deborah Kerr and was not in the mood for this sort of thing) shouted: "Moses!! I understand that you're trying to find yourself and all that, but what's with the infernal spirituals? You went to Midian, not Kenya. Your harmonies are all Arabian. Let your people go? Only if you're going to go and rehearse that act properly! In the meantime, someone go and bring me some real music. Do we have Jesus Christ Superstar on DVD?"

Dejected, Moses went away to the horrible sight of his people in bondage gear, and still just not really getting into it.

Enter, at this point, Deus Ex Machina; who looked theologically at Moses and said: "Be-est thou not dejected, Moses, for though thy music is really not terribly good, even for a fusion experiment, I have on purpose hardened Pharaoh's heart and have made him send you away rather than letting you go. And I have a plan. You're going to keep going to him, and I'm going to keep on making him send you away, until I am forced to send down upon him 10 plagues!! (the last of which will resonate interestingly with an earlier theme, for those who are on the ball)"

"But why?" Asked Moses.

"Because the story would be pretty pointless if you said to him 'let us go!' and he said 'oh, alright then.' Narrative imperative requires it, Moses. Gotta have something to keep the children interested ..."

"Ah, but how can you harden his heart if he doesn't actually believe in you?"

"You didn't understand what I just said about narrative imperative, did you?"

"But, if you harden his heart all the time, then it's not really him making the decisions, is it? It's you. He's not really a bad person at all, then, is he? And then you're going to send plagues down upon him?"

"Go back and read footnote 1 again. Especially the last few words. Now, I have deific things to be getting on with. And you have songs to rehearse!"

Moses was a bit dejected, but he had read his script, and had to play his part accordingly. And of course, God being God, the story went his way (did it have a choice?): Moses going to Pharaoh, Pharaoh refusing his wishes, and eventually 10 sometimes colorful but mostly rather nasty and disturbing plagues (boils, anyone?) being rained down upon Egypt, though not upon the Children and Grandchildren of Israel.

Finally, God sent the biggie. Even though, nine times previously, the plagues had missed the Children of Israel, this time, the Children would have to take action in order to ensure that this plague - the killing of first born children (remember the resonance? Remember??) - would pass over the Children of Israel (pun intended). They were to slaughter a lamb, and smear its blood on the lintels of their doors (on the outside, thankfully) so that the angel of death would know not to stop by there for a game of chess or some such (the angel of death being, apparently, a little more clueless than, say, the angel of noxious beasts, or the angel of frogs, or the angel of lice, or the angel of darkness, all of which, according to the story, knew exactly where not to be at their appointed time).

And so, it came to pass (see above), at midnight, that the angel of death did come, and did smite the firstborn of the Egyptians with smiteness, from the first born of the king to the first born of the lowliests of the servants, but the Children of Israel he did not smite, for so it was written into his contract. But over their houses he did pass, thus giving a name to the festival of passover. Which might otherwise have been called something quite different.

And from the houses of the Egyptians, there arose a wail and a great gnashing of teeth. Which is to be expected, under the circumstances, given that most of the Egyptians had had nothing to do with the bickering between Charlton Heston and Pharaoh Yulbrynner, who himself had been a mere plaything for the Deus Ex Machina ...

In the midst of this, Pharaoh Yulbrynner arose and spake thusly - Get out, Moses!! Take your people with you!! You can't sing for shyte and your god is playing silly-buggers. Go away! And take your omniscient, omnipresent deity with you[5]!

Which they did, as the absolutely not-anthropomorphic-in-any-way Deus Ex Machina lead them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm (and one can only hope, a very good deodorant). Stopping only to drown the pursuing (and one might add, rather slow to catch on) Pharaoh in the Red Sea, for good measure.

And despite all this, we are told, the Children of Israel were in such a hurry leaving Egypt (what with all the changed deadlines, they didn't know whether it was really going to happen or not), they tried baking bread which didn't have time to rise, and so they were stuck with a sort of cardboard like substance with holes in it, which you simply cannot spread honey on without it dripping everywhere. This is, of course, Matza (erroneously spelled Matzo for some inexplicable reason), which is not to be confused with digestible food.

Once on the other side of the Red Sea (which is strangely enough no-where near where they would have actually been, or should have actually been, and quite a detour to take just for the purpose of another, rather unnecessary miracle), Miriam broke out the timbrel again and the Children of Israel celebrated musical freedom once again, doffing the yokes of bondage (and various other leather items) and munched down on their unleavened bread, declaring "Ah, this is the life!".

Since then, and to this very day, descendents of the Children of Israel have celebrated the festival of Passover on Seder night, by asking four questions; getting one answer so long you have to take a break for dinner in the middle of it; drinking four cups one wine (ensuring that many people never get to the end of the story anyway); dipping something twice into something else (or two somethings into two something elses)[6]; eating bitter herbs[7]; generally debating the truly important questions about the Exodus[8]; eating charoset with matza in commemoration of the bricks and mortar; eating a hard boiled egg in commemoration of the previous morning's breakfast; and other such rituals. And, of course, singing lots of songs, generally in a variety of different tunes, mostly all at the same time, but without the aid of timbrels, since the art of playing the timbrel has been sadly lost over time (although this could be a good thing).


Chag sameach, everyone!

1. Rather, he was called "Pharaoh", although in truth, that was just a title. He actually had a name. All of the Pharaohs did. But the Bible does not wish to bother us with the trivial details of just which Pharaoh it was. It was just Pharaoh, alright? Look, no I don't know which Pharaoh it was. Don't try to confuse me with arguments of there being no Egyptian records of plages, exodus, Moses, or anything! Look, stop asking already or you'll go to hell for all eternity ...
Right. Any more questions?

2. Yes, alright. We don't know which one. See footnote 1. Especially the last bit of it ...

3. It is often, erroneously, argued that it was the Children of Israel who built the pyramids. We know that this is wrong for several reasons. One is that there is no archaeological evidence of the store cities, but the pyramids themselves are quite evident, and not merely archaeologically. This would seem to suggest that whoever built the one, could not possibly have built the other. The second is, that as every Jewish child knows, we eat charoset on Seder night in order to commemorate the mortar used by the Children of Israel in building their storage cities. This is probably one of the reasons why these buildings did not remain standing for posterity. They may not, in fact, have remained standing for more than a week. It is probably unnecessary to note that no charoset has been found between the stones of the pyramids.

4. If you didn't get that one, see footnote 3 again. And read it carefully this time.

5. Which of course begs the question, but if you're still in doubt, go back and read that last bit of footnote 1 again.

6. There is some confusion on this point. Do the two dippings refer to the parsley in salt-water? The egg in salt-water? The bitter herb in charoset? The nachos in guacamole? The jury is still out on this one.

7. Romain lettuce and/or horseradish and/or both and/or ... For some reason the traditional Seder Plate has two dishes for this particular part of the ritual. One for "bitter herbs" (maror) and one for, well, horseradish (which is a particularly bitter herb as well) (chazeret).

8. Were there ten plagues, 50 plagues or 250 plagues? Did Rabbi Akiva and his friends end up making it to morning prayers in time? Why is Rabban Gamliel the only Rabbi called "Rabban"? Was he French? Why was one of the guys in the Haggadah called Ben Zoma? Is that really a nice thing to say about his mother? What is the proper action for "Who Knows 8?" and are we allowed to do it at the table in front of the children? Or in front of the candles? And, could someone please pass the charoset?