A Place at the Passover Table - for Pharoah

05/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Originally appeared on Haaretz.com

It was late, maybe midnight
When we opened the door for Elijah
Fully expecting
Aunt Ida, in sable.
But it was Pharaoh that walked in to the wine and the whining
and asked for a seat at the little kids table
saying he had a few questions for us.

He said his son would have asked them
Had he been able to attend, that is,
had we not killed him.
But that was then, and they,
not we,
we hastened to mention,
and even they, one supposes, were decent of intention.

Our mother later insisted he'd been a perfect gentleman.
But for his beard,
and the bandages
he could have been one of us.
Oh, and except for the dust in the shake
of his hand
It isn't on all other nights, he began
that you toast the anniversary of a slaughter of lambs,
the painting of blood on the side of a door.
My son died Erev Pesach. What for?
To teach me my place? You didn't see the look on his face
when the embalmers came to powder and pump and wrap him
into immortality.
They drained him like a crankcase.
You didn't see the look on his face.

But what of the faces whose traces you bear,
As a mirror bears ancestors
As if you were there
sandcrazy, sunblind, crowdcrazy, chainblind,
scared of the dark and the blood in the street
tired of freedom and nothing to eat
but half-baked masonry that tasted like sweat
aching to remember and afraid to forget
what slavery was like.
Admit it.
By the waters that parted you sat down and wept
when you remembered Goshen.

Once you were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt
and once, for a while, you were free.
But now you are masters with burdens more pressing
than dressing a desert in perfect triangles of mud.
You failed your God
when he sent a second flood
to make of a people, a Noah and more. What for?
Some thanks he got. A pawnshop in the wilderness.

"Let's see something in a god we can pen up and milk."
You needed that calf in its 14 carat clothes.
But just who were you fooling with the ring in its nose?

Tonight the celebration of the killing of lambs,
their blood dried to doorposts,
horseradish jam on the table it took you a week to set.
At least a week more, 'fore you get your digestion back right.
You couldn't leave Egypt if you wanted to tonight.

When they came to tell me about my son
in that dialect that doctors affect
the big words snaking past you like bad handwriting,
"In cases such as yours," they began, "let's speak frankly,
in cases of ... amputation,
it is not uncommon to encounter
the selfsame itches, burns, ticklishness
shooting as before from the direction of the ... amputee."
As if nothing had occurred.
As if I hadn't heard correctly.
As if he were still a part of me.

In cases such as mine, the good news is the area to which
the damage has been confined:
To my son, and another in every family in the land.
An extra place-setting at every household tonight,
except for the ones with the blood on the door.
What for? A lesson to mothers, drowning slowly in loss?
To fathers, who went quicker, strapped to chariots?
To horses, perhaps, their eyes bulging back against life, against sea.
And all so that you could be free.

Mine is the son unable to ask questions.
His is the blood in the libel of generations.
His, the wineglass untouched at the table.
His, the line that descends from Abel.
He will quietly crash your celebrations.
he will spike your festival punch with a vague taste of cracked glass.
Why on this night do you so carefully spill his blood
onto your best china?

Next year in Jerusalem,
or Hebron, or Shechem, don't say I didn't warn you
when playing the master has shaken and torn your dreams
to small sandy pieces.
Your God never did sell his property.
He only lets leases.
So shackle that promised land of yours.
Take, as your deed, your birth.
But know how much a promise is worth.
For once
you were promised
to me.

Gezer, Erev Pesach, 1979