For many years, we have incorporated a children’s drama into our Passover Seder. During the Magid (telling of the Passover story) we send the children out of the room to prepare a drama relating to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. They return a little while later, perform it before the adults, and then we all sit down to discuss it. It has always worked well. It helps the kids learn while giving them an opportunity to move around, and, of course, it gives the adults a few minutes to catch our breath.
This year, though, whether out of boredom or mere mischievousness, I decided to change the parameters of the play. They would still create the drama, but this time they were to do it from the perspective of the Egyptians. They bubbled with excitement and disappeared for five minutes to prepare.
They returned with a drama featuring “Joe Schmo” Egyptian as the protagonist. In scene one, Joe, a farmer-villager, visits a great Egyptian city. It is so big and beautiful. How was it built, Joe wonders. He looks around but sees no workers. The thought, though, quickly vanishes as he does his business and then returns home. In scene two, Joe is farming when his cow suddenly drops dead of disease. Struck by the plagues, Joe cannot figure out what he had done wrong. The curtain drops.
As the play ended, I thought immediately of my iPad.
Over the past several months it has been hard to escape the stream of news stories about the conditions of the workers in China who assemble Apple products. The basic lines of this story are far from new. While the precise details of (especially foreign and migrant) worker conditions are often debated, it is clear that there are many, many people who work in sub-optimal circumstances to create our commodities at affordable prices. This vast, ugly underbelly of the production of everything from coffee to cars is one upon which my lifestyle depends.
The ensuing conversation at our Seder was entirely predictable. We justify it by pointing out that these jobs do provide support and opportunities for families who otherwise would live in even worse conditions. We excuse the system by plaintively (and correctly) noting that without these affordable items our already strained budgets would break. We throw up our hands: What, in any case, could we as individuals do to change this massive global economic machine? The adults flailed for an answer. The children smiled.
As we moved to recounting the ten plagues, I began to feel my own perspective shift. As I removed the drops of wine from my cup, I thought of “Joe,” the small, hapless Egyptian whose only sin was not asking too hard about the source of a city’s wealth. I thought of the taskmaster who Moses killed, whose sin may only have been trying to do his job. I thought of my family, my people, my community, and me.
The basic narrative of Passover, like those of Purim and Hanukkah, encourages us to think in black and white. They are evil, we are good. They attempt to oppress us, but we triumph. There is never any doubt about how the story should end.
Yet most of us know that life is not so simple. Evil and good rarely come unalloyed. Our lives, like those of our ancestors, involve a continuous stream of uncomfortable choices. We fantasize about a world in which the choices are clear, in which buying shoes isn’t fraught with the fear of being complicit in child abuse. Perhaps when Elijah comes.
We are all Israelites, and we are all Egyptians. We are oppressed and we oppress. This is the uncomfortable message of Passover, one so clear that even – or maybe only – a child could see it.