All Pharaohs Must Fall:
Some Thoughts About the Passover Holiday
By Rabbi Brant Rosen, Tzedek Chicago
This Passover, I thought a great deal about the exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we tell and retell around the seder table every year.
In particular, I thought about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall. And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.
Empires, of course, have perennially failed to heed this message. Powerful empires have come and gone, but the Power that Makes for Liberation still manages to live to fight another day. Will the Pharaohs among us ever learn?
There’s no getting around the fact that the Passover story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story. That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
A century later, Dr. Martin Luther King said much the same thing in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
Passover thus poses a special challenge to those who wield power and privilege. What would it mean if the powerful truly took to heart our tradition’s most challenging teachings: that God hears the cries of the enslaved, that God is a God of Liberation, that God stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor and demands that we do as well?
As well: are those who benefit from Empire prepared to confront the ways this power is wielded in any number of oppressive ways at home and abroad? Might we possibly be willing to contemplate this truth: that even the mightiest Empire will eventually, inevitably go the way of history?
Indeed, if there is any message we learn from Passover, it’s that, to paraphrase the words of poet Kevin Coval, all Pharaohs must eventually fall:
Wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
May the Passover story inspire us all to be bearers of that vision in our lives and in our world.