Recently, I enjoyed the pleasure and privilege of leading a Passover Seder. Around the room sat a most stimulating group of enthusiastic participants. I began by explaining that rule number one at the Seder is that everything we do has contemporary significance. For example, when a therapist talks a client back through her childhood, it is not to wallow in nostalgia. No, it is for the purpose of revisiting the past to better understand the present in order to improve tomorrow. In the same way, we are not commemorating the Exodus and deliverance from Egyptian slavery. No, we are reliving that 3,330 year-old torment for the purpose of making changes in our lives today and thereby improving tomorrow.
This sounds obvious and easy however in real life it is anything but that. Especially since the culture surrounding most of us emphasizes blaming others for anything we dislike about our own lives. The most obvious ways in which Marxism has influenced secular liberalism, the semi-official state religion of America and most of Europe, is that we have been indoctrinated to assume that problems in our lives are entirely due to race, gender or class. We suffer harassment, injustice, or outright oppression because of the color of our skin, our gender, or the fact that we see ourselves as a ‘disadvantaged class’.
Perhaps the most searing pain comes when we are forced to face the excruciating truth—most of our problems are caused by the person whose name and picture is upon our driving license. Confronting this truth causes such agony that our culture goes to great lengths in order to protect people from it. Saying things that penetrate people’s protective facades, revealing that it’s not wicked ‘others’ causing their problems but they themselves, is condemned as ‘politically incorrect.’ Currently popular ideas like ‘triggering’ and ‘safe space’ all point to our tacit agreement never to remind one another of our own faults.
Any suggestion that a woman should not have entered a man’s hotel room is greeted with howls of indignation because it suggests that she bears some small blame for what next happened. Any suggestion that poor people might need, not other people’s money but some life-values that enabled other people to create the money in the first place provokes screams of outrage. Again, this is because it suggests that poor people might bear some small blame for their own condition. Modern society has come to reject this timeless wisdom of the past—most of our troubles are caused by us ourselves.
Most people, including I think it fair to say many Jews, mistakenly assume that Passover is all about those wicked Egyptians enslaving the poor innocent Hebrews. Yet an honest observance of the Seder leads to startlingly opposite and painful conclusions.
One would expect that the first twelve chapters of the Book of Exodus, dealing as they do with the experience of the Israelites in Egypt up until their deliverance, would contain the word avadim—slaves—many times. Remarkably the word doesn’t appear even once. While the text clearly refers to tax collectors and task-masters nowhere does it as much as suggest that the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites.
For the one and only indication of the Jews becoming avadim—slaves, we must go back to the end of the book of Genesis.
Following the death of their father, Jacob, Joseph’s brothers speak to him saying:
…we present ourselves before you as your slaves.
We might have expected Joseph to firmly reject the offer and remind them that they are free and independent men in servitude only to God Almighty.
Yet his response was the subtle seduction that has always invited people to discard their freedom in exchange for the promise of security.
…fear not. I will sustain you and your children. Thus he reassured them,
speaking kindly to them.
Clearly, on behalf of the Egyptian administration whom he represented, Joseph accepted their voluntary subjugation.
Thus we see that the Israelites did become slaves, but at their own initiative. Later, in the Ten Commandments we read:
I the am the Lord, your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
the house of slaves – avadim.
From this emerges one of the agonizing therapies of the Seder experience; acknowledging that though we did suffer as slaves in Egypt, it was we Hebrews who put ourselves in that unenviable situation. What happened to the group is a lesson about what happens to the individual. Or in other words, the unwelcome but powerful lesson of the Seder experience is that much of what we suffer from today is the result of the bad decisions we made yesterday.
Our willingness to exchange our freedom albeit with all its risks, for the illusory security offered by a government of venal politicians eager to expand their power, is not new. As early as only 23 years after America gained independence from Britain, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Thomas Lomax, a member of the Virginia Senate. It contained these words:
“The body of the American people is substantially republican. But their virtuous feelings have been played on by some facts with more fiction; they have been the dupes of artful maneuvers, and made for a moment to be willing instruments in forging chains for themselves.”
(Thomas Jefferson, March 12, 1799)