As the story of Exodus begins, we learn that a new Pharaoh appeared on the scene, who “did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). This is when the trouble between the Israelites and Egyptians begins: this not knowing eventually becomes Pharaoh’s destruction.
In “Rereading the Plagues,” David Silber writes:
Pharaoh’s “not knowing” carries with it a sense of ingratitude, as Joseph was the savior of his nation; it also suggests callousness and a lack of sensitivity, and the Torah implies that it is not just an intellectual lapse but a moral deficiency.
— p.56, Go Forth and Learn: A Passover Haggadah. Phil., PA: JPS, 2011.
Antidote to Callousness: Knowing as an Act of Loving-Kindness
A common way to observe the period between Passover and Shavuot is to focus each of the seven weeks on an attribute of God, thus bringing the energy of these key attributes into the world as we progress. The first week focuses on Chesed [loving-kindness].
Following Silber’s analysis of Exodus, I suggest that not knowing the contributions of enslaved and otherwise oppressed people to the history of the U.S. similarly “carries with it a sense of ingratitude.” Additionally, such ignorance, in a day when the facts are readily available, “suggests callousness and a lack of sensitivity.” As in the case of Pharaoh forgetting Joseph, this is “not just an intellectual lapse but a moral deficiency.”
In this context, knowledge of, and gratitude for, some contributions of oppressed people in United States, is an act that may help, in a small way, to reverse some of the “moral deficiency” of not knowing.
This speech, from journalist and former slave Maria W. Stewart (1803-1879), seems a good place to begin:
White Americans have gained themselves a name like the names of the great men who are in the earth, while we have been their principal foundation and support.
We have pursued the shadow; they have obtained the substance.
We have performed the labor; they have received the profits.
We have planted the vines; they have eaten the fruits.
— address delivered at the African Masonic Hall in Boston (Feb 27, 1833)
A longer portion of the address is read here by Alfre Woodard:
(Vimeo requires you to click through to listen. The good news: Doing so brings you to a page with many additional resources from Voices from A People’s History of the United States).
Here is a smattering of additional resources:
- Slave labor contributed to the U.S. Capitol Building (from Politifact)
- Slave, and other African, labor helped build Wall Street (The Root, BBC)
- See also The Black History of the White House
We counted one on the evening of April 4.
Making the Omer Count
from On the Road to Knowing: A Journey Away from Oppression
A key element in the journey from liberation to revelation is understanding the workings of oppression, and our part in them. We cannot work effectively to end what we do not comprehend.
So this year, moving from Passover to Shavuot, I commit to learning more about how oppression works and how liberation is accomplished. I invite others to join me:
Let’s work together, as we count the Omer, to make this Omer count.
Thoughts and sources welcome.
Share this graphic to encourage others to participate.
Aware that we are on a journey toward knowing God — from liberation to revelation — I undertake to know more today than I did yesterday about the workings of oppression.
I bless and count [full Hebrew blessings in feminine and masculine address]:
Blessed are You, God, Ruler/Spirit of the Universe, who has sanctified us with Your commandments and commanded us to count the Omer.
Today is day two of the Omer.
Hayom shnay yamim la-omer.
In the spirit of the Exodus, I pray for the release of all whose bodies and spirits remain captive, and pledge my own hands to help effect that liberation.
2 thoughts on “Pharaoh and the Callousness of Not Knowing (Beyond 1)”
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Columbia University professor Eric Foner is out with a new book, “Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.” The book uses newly discovered, detailed records of slave escapes secretly kept by a leading abolitionist. In his “Record of Fugitives,” Sydney Howard Gay, the editor of the American Anti-Slavery Society’s newspaper, chronicled more than 200 escapes, some of whose stories Foner tells in this sweeping account, listing the identities of escaped slaves, where they came from, who their owners were, how they escaped and who helped them on their way to the North.