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)
10 thoughts on “They’re Keeping You Down”
Very good timely teaching. Thank you
Your insight Rabbi Lapin is refreshing and good to the soul.
We enjoy watching you and Susan on Ancient Jewish Wisdom program!
Thank you, Maria
While going to Egypt may have been helpful, the asking of HaShem first would have been wiser. And too, remaining in Egypt and
relying on man was missing the call of ,”Lekh L’Kha”*.
*(Get yourself out)
Thank you for helping me think w/ the question.
Sadly, many Jews today are leaving Judaism for the religion of equality. The religion of equality sits on high above the rest. It gets interesting when we see that the ideas behind the religion of equality are being turned against Jews. If we’re all equal then why are Jews (and Israel too) so successful? They cheated. Punish them. Jews in Europe are feeling the need to flee to Israel. Jews in the US are turning against Israel but eventually may have to flee there too in the next decade or two. How long before millions of Muslims are allowed to flood into the US? Equality means equal countries too.
It’s like the movie Casino. We had it made then we screwed it all up. We, the people, did it to our ourselves.
this is a very interesting commentary, a drash on the meaning of Joseph’s response to the brothers’ offer to make themselves slaves. I wonder if it is your chidush, innovation, or you saw it, even faintly, in someone else’s commentary. I would think that most would understand that Joseph’s answer to them was “of course I will not make you suffer as a slave, you would have the comforts of a palace guest.” You suggest he said “well, at first I won’t use a whip on you, but yes, slaves sounds like a great idea, let’s start with the pathological “good” side of slavery, we will take care of you and rid you of personal responsibility and thereby part of your humanity. The taskdriving will be much easier after that.” Very interesting!
Thank you Gidon,
Yes, Joseph acting with integrity on behalf of his employer, the Egyptian administration, had no right to renounce the asset represented by their slavery. On behalf of said employer, he obviously accepted with the commitment of every slave owner–I will take care of you.
Thank you, you always give me insight to what I have read many times but have not notice before.
That is a very good lesson, Rabbi Lapin. I think another lesson of the Israelites relevant to us today is that the decisions we make today can affect our posterity, not only us. We should be mindful of that fact.
Wow, what an insightful article. Thank you Rabbi Lapin. As a Christian, I have always believed in personal responsibility as a first tenant of success in life. However, when I speak to my two nieces who are fresh out of college, I find they are washed in this theology of race, gender, and class as the source of all our nations problems, It concerns me to no end. To them, nothing is a person’s fault; it’s always something else. And amazingly, to them, most of the problems are now the white males fault! Unbelievable!!
I find it incredibly difficult to even have a discussion with them about this topic. What appears as common sense to me (at 60 years old) Is total blasphemy to them. I fear that as our basic presuppositions about life and success are turned upside down by this current generation and by our college universities, we will increasingly give our personal freedoms away to the illusion of government security. And in doing so, it seems we are becoming weaker and weaker by the minute.
The Lord God Almighty is our only hope.
Dear Rabbi, many thanks for revealing that a perennial lesson of the Seder is a perennial warning to us of a tragic flaw in human nature and in our human condition: never to let down our guard where our freedom is concerned. The words of Thomas Jefferson, alas! are just as true today as at the close of the 18th century. How close are we to throwing in the towel and embracing the rule of despots who would return our bastion of Western Civilization to Mega-Government and default us into the slavery that plagues most of Mankind? Freedom is oh so easily given up, but purchased once again only by oceans of human blood. Our Founding Fathers knew this very well. On an agonized personal level, you remind us that that we, through faulty and disastrous decision-making, are largely the authors of our own misfortune. We shake our angry fists at God, yet we fall into the pit our very own lapse has dug for us, despite Biblical warnings.
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