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Waiting for the World to Change

As the Passover story teaches us, waiting can be futile and frustrating as well as enormously productive

Erica Brown
March 23, 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Léon Gérôme, 'Moses on Mount Sinai'Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Jean-Léon Gérôme, 'Moses on Mount Sinai'Wikimedia Commons

“Keeping others waiting is the prerogative of the powerful,” quipped Roland Barthes. We spend a good part of our lives waiting. We wait in lines and in waiting rooms. We wait for news, for change, for avocados to ripen. Life feels, at times, like one inexorable wait. But all waiting is not the same. There is the waiting of futility summed up by these seven words: Your call is very important to us. Then there is the waiting of productivity: The wait as we digest, process, percolate, and grow an idea. We’ll call this kind of waiting gestation. When it comes to change, one type of waiting is useless and the other is exceptionally useful.

We cannot wait for empty waiting to end, but we must wait for gestative waiting to come to its own natural end. Push too early, and we may not fully bake an idea. In pregnancy, we need to wait for a baby’s full viability. Early birthing makes an infant vulnerable. The same is true with revolutions. An idea too long before its time is difficult to actualize. The Passover story involves both types of waiting and invites us to use discretion in understanding the difference between them, the curse of one and the gift of the other.

Pharaoh kept us waiting in Barthes’ sense of the term. With plague after plague, Pharaoh was incrementally persuaded but then quickly changed his mind, hardening his heart against the suffering Israelites. “Executive suites,” Andrea Kohler observes in Passing Time: An Essay on Waiting, “are filled with people who arrogate and greedily consume our time. Whoever makes us wait celebrates his power over our lives, and what’s especially threatening about it is that we can never be sure that we aren’t made to wait for precisely this reason.” The Israelites were waiting for this very reason in Pharaoh’s display of control over every aspect of their slave lives.

Pharaoh utilized another trick to demonstrate complete control. He made it seem like this was all the fault of Moses and Aaron. Because Moses pleaded with Pharaoh to let his people go, Pharaoh worked them harder, giving them fewer resources to succeed, making them incrementally less productive. Work is hard, but work that produces nothing is harder. Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all” (Exodus 5:22-23). Moses had internalized Pharaoh’s blame, yet the Israelites’ worsened state had little to do with Moses and everything to do with a ruler intent on making others wait and suffer, suffer and wait.

Before these subtle developments that move backwards before they move forward, we find in the Exodus story and in the Haggadah itself an almost obsessive recording of pregnancy, the most potent symbol and literal expression of gestative waiting. We open the book of Exodus with the death of Joseph’s generation. But lest we think that all ends in naught, we are immediately told that as a people we became immensely fertile, a blessing not evident in the Genesis narratives where so many stories circle around the struggle to conceive. “Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:6-7). The harder they were worked, “the more they multiplied and spread” (1:12).

The juncture between Pharaoh’s hold on the Israelites and their hold on him surfaces in the alignment of two verses in the second chapter of Exodus: “They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly” (1:14) This is unproductive work, and to communicate how it had no benefit for the Israelites, the Hebrew word for work is used four times in this verse; this was empty, back-breaking, foot-cracking work.

Pharaoh immediately turned his attention away from his slave to the midwives, to the work of the women. “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives…” (1:15). Did Pharaoh have so little to do in running his empire that he had time to speak to the midwives of slaves? Pharaoh understood that birthing was the most threatening work of all. With each birth another small contributor to subversion entered the world.

The Israelites were busy doing the productive work of gestating the future, confirmed by the midwives’ strange assessment of these Hebrew slave women: “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive…” (1:19). The Hebrew word for vigor actually translates as “animalistic.” Rashi, the eleventh century exegete, explains the careful word choice. Like animals that birth without assistance, the Hebrew women did not wait for midwives. They did not wait for the world the change. They pushed it into existence.

The story of the midwives is followed immediately by one significant birth. Moses’s mother “became pregnant and gave birth to a son (2:2). Woman after woman is described as birthing, protecting, nurturing and protecting the future. A Jewish woman birthed him; his sister stood in wait to see what would happen to him, an Egyptian princess saved him, his mother nursed him. The ultimate subversive act is when those who represent the system protect those trying to subvert it.

Moses taught us the gift of waiting. Slaves have nothing to wait for but the punishing demands of their masters. This is the emptiest kind of waiting. There was nothing to wait for but waiting itself. Only a free person has the luxury of waiting. But the women of Exodus had something that no taskmaster could touch. They were growing the change within. It was and still is the most precious kind of human waiting there is. They teach us the importance of gestative waiting.

Some years ago, John Mayer’s song “Waiting for the World to Change” was a popular radio choice. It’s a song about empty waiting: “Now we see everything that’s going wrong/With the world and those who lead it/We just feel like we don’t have the means/To rise above and beat it/So we keep waiting/Waiting on the world to change.” Why wait? Mayer’s waiting vitiates the important waiting we must do to change the world. Our Exodus waiting: the gestation of a revolution of justice against tyranny. We waited for the right moment until nothing could hold us back.

We don’t wait for the world to change. We wait for the right moment to change the world. This Passover, coming in a spring bristling with possibilities, what are you waiting for?

Dr Erica Brown is an Associate Professor at George Washington University and the director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.