There are two rabbinic assessments of the state of the Israelites at the time of the Exodus.
The first teaches that “Because of four things Israel was redeemed from Egypt: They didn’t change their names or their language, they didn’t betray secrets, and none of them was promiscuous. (Yayikra Rabbah 32)” In other words, despite being surrounded by a debauched culture that overbearingly oppressed them, they managed to retain the core of their social and moral identity. According to this view, the seder is, at least in part, a celebration of the steadfastly moral fiber of the Israelites under the severest of tests.
The second asserts that the Israelites were more vulnerable to their context, and had actually sunk to the 49th depth of impurity (of 50!) during the Egyptian bondage. Had they fallen any further, in fact, they would have become unsalvageable. God had to accelerate the process of salvation, redeeming the Israelites ahead of schedule, to prevent them from hitting rock bottom. We therefore thank God at the seder for extracting them from Egypt before it was too late.
While these two traditions differ in their perspectives on the Israelites, they share the somewhat disturbing assumption that relief from enslavement and oppression is something that a people has to deserve. In these teachings, we hear echoes of the voices from 19th century America warning of the chaos that would surely ensue if slavery were to be abolished because of the inferior moral quality of those who would be freed.
Any perceived moral or social failings were actually probably more the results of slavery than justifications for it. Many slaves in the American South tried desperately to build and maintain stable family structures in a setting where any member could be sold at a moment’s notice. Slaves may have struggled to retain a sense of community, but that did not mean that successive generations born into captivity had any unsevered ties to their heritage – their languages or names – or any bonds to connect them to each other besides their chains.
In contemporary times, we still hear the voices of those who blame the victims of systemic economic and racial injustice for their own condition. Responding to the angry protests after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the killing of Travyon Martin, FOX News’ Bill O’Reilly explained that African-Americans are profiled by police “because young black American men are so often involved in crime.” He continued, “[T]he first solution is, you’ve got to stop young black women from having babies out of wedlock. You’ve got to discourage that actively. And the second thing is, you’ve got to demand discipline in your public schools in the inner cities..Have the kids in school uniforms and demand standards in discipline.”
O’Reilly has long battled accusations of racism, but in this case his language actually parallels National Review writer Kevin Williamson’s brutal analysis of depressed white communities. Explaining the appeal of Donald Trump to white working class voters, Williamson wrote, “If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog—you will come to an awful realization…The white American under-class is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin…They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul. If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.”
O’Reilly and WIlliamson actually have it backwards. Studies show that the “myth of the missing black father” is, in fact, a myth, and that a community’s rate of dysfunction, from marriage to crime to drug addiction, closely tracks economic opportunity – not the reverse. Many traditional commentaries, Maimonides in particular, saw the Israelites’ forty-year journey through the wilderness as a program for ridding them of their “slave mentality” and rehabilitating them into a people capable of living as a free society. In fact, though, social science tells us that as opportunity increases and systemic persecution is addressed, people quickly and naturally make the productive choices that will benefit them the most in the long term. There is not, it turns out, a “slave mentality” so much as there is simply the crushing reality of oppression.
Another Midrashic tradition maintains that four fifths of the Israelites did not actually leave Egypt, but instead vanished during the plague of darkness. Their spirits broken to the point where they could not muster the strength or resources to follow Moses out, they simply melted away into the shadows.
I wonder if that 80% who remained in Egypt are the rabbinic equivalent of those trapped within an urban ghetto or Appalachian ghost town, without the wherewithal or even desire to leave. Instead of focusing on the minority of slaves who, almost miraculously, break free of their bonds to find redemption, perhaps this year we should to do more to dismantle our Egypts themselves, and, in doing so, freeing the vast majority that would otherwise remain inside.