When we read Exodus, some people imagine what Egypt was like as an ancient civilization. If you’re a synagogue regular, you’re hearing the story unfold each week as the Torah is read. If you’re more likely at a Pesach seder at a relative’s dinner table, you’ve heard the same narrative. We imagine Joseph’s dreams and his esteemed position advising Pharaoh. There are the complicated family dynamics, the rise of a new ruler, the enslavement of the Jewish people, Moses’ ascension as a leader, and the plagues. We’re captivated in part because it’s compelling. There’s lots of tension, and that makes for good drama.
There are laws listed and proper ways to behave. There are also irrational and upsetting actions and behaviour that are completely out of bounds. Sure, one can approach a ruler and ask for something – or there’s darkness, frogs, lice and death. There’s a rational, law-abiding approach, and the emotional, gut-wrenching knee-jerk response. These are both fundamentally human reactions. When the plagues happened, I imagine that it must have felt like the end of the Egyptians’ world. The labour vacuum caused by the loss of slaves might have led to a collapse of functional Egyptian society.
I juxtaposed this familiar story with others that have crossed my mind. Over winter break, my kids (like most) and I were housebound for quite awhile. Due to a virus or two and the extreme cold, we weren’t going out. Mostly, the time passed without incident, but keeping siblings busy and out of trouble is no joke. When we weren’t one step ahead with the next round of button hockey or “Swedish scooting” (indoor games we made up as we went along), we’d turn our backs and a kid would be assaulting his brother.
As I pulled one kid off another, I imagined what the European settlers on the Prairies endured when they spent an entire winter in a one-room sod house with their children. I wondered how many kids killed one another. Many families also died of disease, starvation, or froze to death.
Meanwhile, my U.S. family sent my kids a homemade video of a gathering with friends. Everyone on the video joked about the dog’s squeaky toy, which resembled the current U.S. president. I struggled with this. In terms of behaving in a civilized way, it seemed too close to the bone of the matter. If we’re meant to respect the position but we can’t conscience the current president, how do we communicate this notion to our kids?
What’s our duty as upstanding people and as Jews? As a child growing up near Washington, D.C., I went to school with all sorts, including the children of politicians, diplomats, lawyers and civil servants. Back then, I remember how everyone worked hard to be civil to one another. Strom Thurmond, Jr.’s mother was a great volunteer in our classroom. Marilyn Quayle was a dependable carpool mom for my brother’s soccer team. Our political leanings were the polar opposite of Thurmond’s Dixiecrats or Dan Quayle’s, but, as elementary school parents, our respective parents could agree to disagree. Our parents modeled civility to one another, and that meant we too (mostly) treated one another with respect.
We teeter back and forth on a seesaw when it comes to behaving in an upstanding way. These days, anybody in D.C. would tell you that old-fashioned civility and common-sense manners are long gone. The current world political scene feels more like that period of plagues. Nobody knows what will strike us next.
Even so, we have choices when it comes to how we behave towards others. We can aim to be rational, thoughtful people who think through our actions and try to behave responsibly, as Hillel suggested. When someone who wanted to learn about Judaism asked Hillel to sum it up while standing on one foot, Hillel responded, “That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the whole Torah. The rest is its interpretation. Go study.” (Talmud: Tractate Shabbat 31A)
We may also behave impetuously, with emotional, irrational responses that seem more like sporadic and scary plagues. Jewish tradition would suggest we aim for Hillel’s behavioural model, though one can legitimate the name-calling and lack of civility, too. There are plenty of examples of non-rational biblical outbursts from which to choose.
It’s too easy to throw stones at each other based on our religious observance or our political views about Israel, Canada or world affairs. It’s much harder to behave with civility and agree to disagree. As I pull my twins apart and demand compromise, or suggest (again) to use please, thank you and you’re welcome, I spend a lot of time thinking about civilization and civilized behaviour.
When I student-taught high school in a rough D.C. neighbourhood, people often yelled on the street. Some yelled hello and smiled. Others sometimes yelled antisemitic, misogynist threats. A Grade 9 student nicknamed “Punkin” took to walking me to the train station. When the threats started, she’d pull herself up tall and holler right across the road, “Was you drug up in a barn?! Act civilized!”
Indeed, we weren’t brought up in barns. Punkin was from a good home, and the threats stopped when she broke the tension that way and called grown men out on their bad behaviour. I’m working hard to provide the same civilized model for my kids. We can treat each other better than that. We can agree to disagree without doing hateful things. I learned a lot from Punkin – and Rav Hillel, too.
Joanne Seiff writes regularly for CBC Manitoba and is a regular columnist for Winnipeg’s Jewish Post and News. She is the author of the book From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. See more about her at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.