Passover: A Different Kind of Liberation Story

The connection between the Passover story and LGBTQ liberation is easy. Too easy. A group of people suffer under oppressors for hundreds of years and, thanks to a charismatic leader and a little perseverance, they are delivered amid clap and thunder, free at last to live their own lives. And indeed the Passover story has served as a prototype for liberation narratives for ages, not just in an LGBTQ context. It’s a story of underdog triumph that we Americans love. Our culture has embraced this Biblical tale with an almost unprecedented tenacity, and Americans who haven’t the slightest clue what the “books of Moses” are can at least summarize the book of Exodus for you.  And can anyone read the line, “Let my people go!” without hearing Paul Robeson’s rumbling baritone?

Creative Common/Chang'r

Creative Common/Chang’r

But we’ve got the story all wrong. I’ve been saying this for years, poo-pooing people’s feel-good glow of freedom during this season, but no one wants to listen to a curmudgeon during Pesach.

I realize I’m being a buzz kill, but the Passover story is not about liberation at all. We conveniently truncate the line, “Let my people go.” That’s not even the end of the sentence. Every single time the line appears in Torah, it is followed with the words, “That they may serve me.” God was not interested in the Israelites’ unfettered freedom. The story is not about liberation. The story is about servitude. God freed the Israelites for the explicit and solitary purpose of allowing them to serve a different master.

As the liberation-loving people that we are, we have co-opted the famous phrase. Once I realized how prominent the second half of that line factored into the story, I got a funny feeling, like the first time I learned that our American ancestors on the Mayflower did not weather the Atlantic Ocean in search of separation of church and state. That’s another story we’ve stripped of its complexity, rendering it virtually unrecognizable from its historical truth.

Posted on March 15, 2013

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