Audre Lorde and chains

The Temptation of the Master’s Tools

Who will you choose to be? Are you paying attention? How many times have you been called to action? What will you choose to do?

Two years ago, as a member of the 14th Street Y’s LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture fellowship, I had the tremendous opportunity to premiere an excerpt of a work I wrote called Go Down, Moshe. The work explores the Passover narrative from a Queer, Black, first-person perspective, using negro spirituals, the music of the civil rights era, and the narratives of formerly enslaved people. One of the slides I used in the show prominently displayed the following statement from 116b of Mishnah Pesachim:

בְּכׇל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּיב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִילּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt

(Author’s note: this post is not about Passover, necessarily, but the clock *is* ticking.)

As someone pursuing ordination as a Maggid, I take the directive of seeing myself as if I, personally, had left Egypt, very seriously. This year, though, I find this idea sitting differently. I find myself thinking about how we got there in the first place. It’s clear why we had to leave, but what are the hints, what are the breadcrumbs in our sacred text that foreshadowed this? To start to answer some of these questions, I needed to revisit the story of Joseph and the liminal space between the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus.

Joseph’s dream-interpreting ability, and his willingness to talk about it, was the bane of his brothers’ existence. So much so that they plotted to kill him. They opted to, instead, throw him into a ditch and sell him into Egyptian slavery. After running afoul of Potiphar (via his wife), he’s thrown into an Egyptian dungeon. There, he interprets the dreams of two fellow prisoners, one of whom is impaled, as per the dream, three days later. Joseph is imprisoned for another two years before he is consulted by Pharaoh to interpret the dreams his magicians could not. Joseph predicts seven years of prosperity, followed by seven years of famine, and the plan to get through it all. Immediately, Joseph is released from the dungeon and becomes the viceroy of Egypt.

Under the circumstances, and considering everything else he’d been through up to this point, being the viceroy of Egypt was probably a pretty sweet gig. But, as Shakespeare wrote in Merchant of Venice, “All that glitters is not gold.”

As we read on in the parsha (miketz), we come across this verse in Genesis 43:32 about the Egyptian attitude toward the Hebrews when Joseph has dinner with his brothers:

וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ ל֛וֹ לְבַדּ֖וֹ וְלָהֶ֣ם לְבַדָּ֑ם וְלַמִּצְרִ֞ים הָאֹכְלִ֤ים אִתּוֹ֙ לְבַדָּ֔ם כִּי֩ לֹ֨א יוּכְל֜וּן הַמִּצְרִ֗ים לֶאֱכֹ֤ל אֶת־הָֽעִבְרִים֙ לֶ֔חֶם כִּי־תוֹעֵבָ֥ה הִ֖וא לְמִצְרָֽיִם׃

“They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.

Even without this verse, it’s clear that if Joseph hadn’t been able to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, he’d still be wasting away in an Egyptian dungeon; this is tokenism. What this verse underscores is just how dangerous this tokenism is. The Torah is not mincing words here, the word translated as “abhorrent” is literally “abomination,” a word used in other contexts of Torah that we, as Queer people, may struggle with. It didn’t matter how many people were going to survive because of Joseph, this perceived tolerance was temporary, at best.

In the first parsha of Exodus, shemot, names, we have a quick recap of the generations of Jacob and then this statement in Exodus 1:8:

וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.

There’s an interesting talmudic discussion[1] as to whether or not the aforementioned new king is a new Pharaoh ruling over Egypt or the old Pharaoh acting as if Joseph hadn’t been instrumental in the survival of the kingdom. For our purposes, neither answer is preferable, as three verses later, we’re enslaved. Torah doesn’t tell us much of anything about Moses’ early life, but we do know that he floated his way into the monarchy, and when he grew up, he killed an Egyptian taskmaster for abusing one of the Hebrews. After realizing his actions had witnesses, he fled to Midian, and learned of his destiny when G!?d called his name from a burning bush.

Invoking the words of the 20th century Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde,

“…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

While Lorde is speaking about the shortcomings of non-intersectional feminism, I think this concept can be applied more generally to systems of power. In my mind, the connection between Joseph and Moses, the tie that binds the liminal space between Genesis and Exodus is just that, the master’s house. Put another way: Moses and Joseph are both operating under systems of oppression, just under different circumstances. To put an end to his carceral punishment, Joseph did what he needed to do to survive, he became part of the system as the Token Hebrew. Moses, on the other hand, quite literally floated his way into the Egyptian monarchy. He fled the system before the system could kill him, and it was there, in the wilderness of exile that G!?d told Moses his destiny and how to achieve it.

I don’t remember where or when I learned this, but I was taught Torah doesn’t often repeat itself, so repetitions of words always catch my attention. G!?d calls Moses’ name twice during the burning bush encounter. Part of me wonders if Moses wasn’t paying attention the first time, and the repetition of his name had the weight of, “don’t make me call your name a third time” behind it. During this encounter, G!?d famously refers to Itself as Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be, and instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that Ehyeh sent him. But what if the roles were reversed? What if, instead, G!?d asked, “Who shall I say I am sending?” and Moses replied, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.”

Who will you choose to be? Are you paying attention? How many times have you been called to action? What will you choose to do?

No shade to Joseph, but being part of the system, while perhaps necessary at the time, didn’t seem to materially benefit the Israelites beyond surviving the famine. The wisdom I’m taking away from Joseph, Moses, and Audre is this: trying to reform the master’s house/systems of oppression from the inside will never be enough. There are numerous examples in current events and very recent history of the impacts of fundamentally unjust systems allowed to run amok. It is, and will always be, on every single one of us to be willing to dismantle and destroy these systems, in the ways we are capable of, if we are to bring about lasting, equitable change.

[1] Eruvin 53a, Sotah 11a

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