Monday, October 27, 2008

Enough already! (Dayenu in Reverse)

Among today's nine aggadot about the Exodus, two of them directly address the emotions and thoughts of the Egyptians, which is a fascinating editorial choice on the part of Bialik and Ravnitzky. While tomorrow's reading includes a famous midrash about the angels having pity for the Egyptians, these aggadot confront the suffering of the Egyptians from a human perspective. These stories toy with the idea of expressing real sympathy (or empathy) for the plagues and trials the Egyptians experience, but ultimately use humor to diffuse or undermine that impulse-- they play it safe while opening up possibilities in the mind of the reader.

#78 functions as a reverse "Dayenu," with the Pharoh's servants enumerating the various tribulations they experience and exclaiming, "K'dai hu lanu!" "It would have been enough for us!" This reminder of the flexibility of the expression "dai"/ "enough" makes the reader consider the fact that there are two sides to the story-- one person's blessing may be another person's curse, quite literally. For the Israelites and the Egyptians, it is a zero-sum game; as the situation has unfolded, the Israelites cannot be freed unless the Egyptians suffer. The parable in the second part of the aggadah ironically puts the Egyptians in the role of the comically incompetent slave who makes all of the wrong choices, thus transforming some of the sympathy the reader may be feeling into derision.

The funnier story is clearly #75 with its parable about a fat man riding an ass, both of whom think the other is a pain in the... well... donkey. Despite the ridiculous image, this aggadah points to a crucial truth-- that oppression is damaging not only to the oppressed, but also to the oppressor. Unlike #78, in which the plagues are blamed for Egypt's suffering, #75 implies that it is the actual fact of slavery, the condition in which one people is subject to another, that causes pain for the slaveholders. The silly parable itself reinforces the idea that the rider is diminished and demeaned by his abuse of the donkey. As Frederick Douglass put it, "No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck."

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