Conveying the contemporary relevance of Passover, Judaism’s most famous holiday, to a western audience, most of whom have grown up in thriving liberal democracies, is challenging. I remember how when I first arrived at Oxford University to serve as Rabbi in 1988 the students organized seders not just on Passover but throughout the year to support imprisoned refuseniks of the Soviet Union. But that was a generation ago.
We can look at Passover as nothing more than the retelling of an ancient saga of bondage and liberation. The Jews were enslaved to Egyptian taskmasters, and God, through spectacular acts of intervention – ten plagues, splitting of the Red Sea – redeemed them from servitude. Yet, the Passover Seder, which is the highlight of the Jewish calendar and is sacred not just to Jews but to Christians as the last supper of Christ, something I explore in my book Kosher Jesus, is not merely about retelling but reliving the exodus from Egypt. Jews are enjoined to taste of saltwater and bitter herbs and thus to live through the tears and suffering of our forebears; to eat matzo, the poor man’s bread, thereby re-experiencing a taste of servitude; and finally to drink four cups of wine with which to come into contact with the elation of redemption.
But is any of this relevant to modern Americans who have thankfully never known political servitude?
I would offer that the answer is an unqualified yes. For though we are free we are still enslaved. Or, as Rousseau put it, man is free although everywhere he is in chains.
What nearly collapsed the American economy in 2008 was a nation that could not stop spending money. Subjected to unending pressures to prosper materially, we indulged in homes we could not afford and addicted ourselves to impulse purchases that surrounded us with the accouterments of success. To pay for all this we worked all hours of the day and typed away at our blackberries at night, thereby compromising our greatest treasure of all, our children. Is this the mark of freedom? Indeed, with phones that are on us always and with a 24-hour news cycle and economy, and with the need to update our Facebook and Twitter status at all hours of the day and night, we are certainly the most electronically enslaved generation ever.
Think of the women who spend their lives trying to ape whatever is on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine that week. Are they free to be themselves, or are they imprisoned with artificially low self-esteem in a culture that values a woman more for cheekbones and thinness than knowledge and character?
We tend to think of imprisonment only in political terms. If an outside party imposes their will on us, we feel restrained and oppressed. But the most serious form of duress is the restriction imposed upon us by our own human nature. Passover’s message is that men and women can transcend instinct, impulse, and social pressures and be whatever they wish to become. Each of us is endowed with a yearning to leave Egypt and be free.
America is the same. Our country seems at time mired in a rut of material consumption, cultural shallowness, political partisanship, and economic instability. But none of this is ingrained into our national DNA. We are capable of liberating ourselves from a spending addiction, degrading decadence, incessant political warfare, and the inevitability of historical decline.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained that there are essentially two forms of slavery. The first is juridical, a political state of enslavement in which man becomes the prisoner of another man. This state reduces humans to chattel, an object to be bought and sold, a thing serving as the private property of an owner. The slave’s productivity – even his very being – belongs to his master. He is exploited and humiliated by a political system that so degrades his status. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. He can one day be emancipated and restored to full human stature.
But the second type of slavery, while far less overtly discomfiting, is actually more severe. This is typological slavery, a mental state of servitude rather than politically imposed enslavement. There are people whose will has been broken and whose ego has been effaced. They think, feel, and act in a distinctively docile manner. They have lost hope. Their ability to conduct themselves as free men and women has been constricted and manipulated. Dreams and ambitions which they once cherished have dissipated and their hopes for the future have been crushed. They are disinclined to take responsibility for their actions and they submerge their individuality beneath that of another, be it a person, a company, or the state. This slave mentality can be found even among politically liberated peoples.
Witness the fact that after Moses had redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt, he sent a group of slaves to spy out the land and determine the most efficient way to conquer it. Yet they returned with a dispiriting report: “The Land is filled with giants… and we were in their sight as grasshoppers, and so we appeared to ourselves as well.” Such feelings of inferiority would not have allowed for the conquering of the land. God therefore decided to wait forty more years, until that entire generation had been replaced, before allowing the Jews to enter the land and acquire it. Pervasive feelings of low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence – so common in our culture – is an iteration of this typological enslavement. It is far easier to take the man out of prison than it is to take the prison out of the man. While the former is enslavement of the body, the latter is the enslavement of the mind.
Passover we go out of Mitzrayim, Egypt, which translates literally as natural limitations. Man is not a prisoner of his nature, which can always be subordinated to human will. We are not to indulge destructive emotion but transcend it, not accommodate bitterness and cynicism but transform them.
It was Hitler who proclaimed in Mein Kampf that “Going against nature brings ruin to man… and is a sin against the will of the Eternal Creator. It is only Jewish impudence which demands that we go against nature.” But the word kadosh, holy, in Hebrew, means distinct and set apart. We only elevate our lives when we transcend a natural selfishness and congenital self-centeredness and become other-people oriented. It is not natural for us to put others before ourselves. Less so is it natural for us to give freely of our possessions for the edification of another.
Our personal potential remains imprisoned in Egypt, our national promise fettered to Pharaoh. It is time for us to finally be free.