Liberation & Violence: Passover’s Queer Lesson of Empathy
Passover tells the story of the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt and liberation into the wildnerness. Often told as a tale of miracles and singular, epic moments, the way we celebrate the holiday contains many lessons for those of us committed to queer liberation.
Perhaps you’ve seen Dreamworks Studio’s 1998 animated feature The Prince of Egypt, with its unforgettable splitting-of-the-sea scene featuring whale silhouettes backlit by lightning, or its rousing rendition of “When You Believe” including Hebrew text from the Torah itself.
There are many things I love about the film, especially its occasionally masterful representations of sacred Jewish texts, but one dramatic scene that stands out is the depiction of the Ten Plagues.
With staccato choral singing, the music builds in intensity, with an imbroglio of the voices of Pharaoh and of Moses and the word of Israel’s God detailing the ten increasingly devastating manifestations of “pestilence and plague.” Throughout the song, we see visual representations of swarming frogs, relentless lice, fiery hail, and all the rest.
When I read of the plagues, it is difficult for me to imagine anything but the relentless attacks on the bodies and the dignity and the very existence of trans, nonbinary, and gender “nonconforming” people. And, I’ll admit it, I fantasize that all those folks out there whose hearts seem to be cruelly hardened against innocent people could feel the panic, the disorientation, the devastation of the plagues, just like the Egyptians in the story I and the rest of the Jewish people will reenact on Wednesday night, at Passover:
“וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה נְטֵ֤ה יָֽדְךָ֙ עַל־הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וִ֥יהִי חֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־אֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם וְיָמֵ֖שׁ חֹֽשֶׁךְ׃
“Then the Eternal said to Moses, ‘Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched.’” (Shemot/Exodus 10:21).
I wish it were more difficult to imagine being plunged into a tangible darkness, the total absence of light and hope: as a queer rabbi, as an advocate for inclusion, as a parent, at times I struggle to resist despair. Hundreds of proposed (and passed) bills robbing parents and doctors of their…