Wisdom Wherever You Find It
If victims were the only ones who understood oppression, who would help them? Leon Wieseltier
Almost everywhere I turn, I bump into something smart that Leon Wieseltier said. That’s not to say that I always agree with him, but I admire his clarity of thought. He belongs in a cohort of public thinkers like Ellen Goodman, Michael Gerson, Michelle Singletary, Ta-Nehisi Coates and George Will (among others) whose ideas demand consideration. This question he posed does not come without context, both spoken and unspoken. But my perspective or yours on those contexts does not change the worth of the question out of any context.
Maybe the earliest illustration of this insight is the Biblical story of liberation from Egypt. When we tell the story, especially in the rituals of Passover, we put a lot of emphasis on the standoff between Moses and Pharaoh, presuming them to be proxies for the Israelites and the Egyptians, respectively. And we acknowledge the suffering of the people of Egypt when we spill drops of wine from our otherwise full cup of joy as we recall the plagues that befell all of Egypt (but none of Goshen, where the Israelites lived).
However, we generally gloss over a moment in the story that enables the liberated slaves to survive in the wilderness. The Israelites are instructed by God through Moses to go to the Egyptian population and ask for valuables (Exodus 11:2-3) just before the final and most horrifying plague. The Egyptians respond beyond generously, heaping jewels, precious metals, cloth and more on their departing work force.
The significance of these gifts is profound in two ways. From a practical point of view, the Egyptian population is facing an economic crisis. The work force is going to disappear overnight, and the economy will have to be reimagined. Giving away the family valuables – the equivalent of emptying their savings accounts – leaves the people on the brink of ruin. For generations, some necessary tasks have been handled by a slave labor force. Now, the people themselves will take over absolutely everything they did, from construction to childcare. Their gold and silver, rubies and sapphires are the reserves that might have made the difference between survival and starvation.
From a social point of view, the Egyptian people were collaborators in the oppression of the Israelite people. Let’s give them the benefit of every doubt and say they were benign masters. But they were masters nonetheless, no less complicit in enslavement than the example closer to home in American history. The gifting of their wealth to the departing Israelites – done with “favor,” reports the Bible – indicated however belatedly an acceptance of their culpability. Reparations would not bring back generations of unrealized freedom, never mind babies tossed into the river. But even a belated awakening to the suffering caused by their willingness to accept the system is welcome.
I would go so far as to suggest that they just may have come to understand themselves as perpetrators, wherever they were located on the scale of immoral behavior. Even if I am being too charitable, it is clear that their help came as they understood oppression.
It is sometimes mystifying that the Bible is kind to the Egyptians after the incident at the Sea. Some tribes – Amalek, Moab, others – are negatively portrayed and perpetually excluded from affection and allyship. But the people responsible for our defining trauma are protected from our wrath and even, at points, embraced. Historians attribute some of that approach to the political circumstances in later years when the text of the Torah was redacted. But the guidance to the morality of the people that emerges is this: perpetrators have the ability to change their lives if they awaken to their transgressions, and that change should be welcome. Otherwise, oppression imprisons victim and victimizer alike.
Listen, this is not a suggestion that those who have been injured should be patsies or Pollyannas. A basket of trinkets, even sincerely offered, is not compensation for lost life and dignity. Instead, it is a suggestion that the calcified shell around the human heart can be softened and removed by the witness of the oppressed and – most important – the willingness of oppressors to accept past mistakes and participate in building a better future for their victims.