Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pesach Reflections: The Slave Mentality

Today, with the heavy cleaning work done, I will partially turn the kitchen over for Pesach, and begin cooking. Tonight, we will do Bedikat Chametz--the hunt for the 'last bit of Chametz" or leavening in the house, which will be burned tomorrow on the grill and a legal formula will be recited to nullify any Chametz we have not removed or sold. The sale of the congregation's Chametz (collective and personal) to a gentile will occur tomorrow morning, and we will not own even that which is stored in our houses. Everything is being done a day early, because Pesach begins at the end of Shabbat, so we will "rest" tomorrow.

The Slave Mentality
The main part of the Haggadah--The Telling--begins with Four Questions, asked by the youngest at the Seder. And there are actually four "tellings" of "l'tziat mi-Mitzrayim"--the coming forth from the Narrow Places (Egypt).

They are:
1. Avadim Chayinu--We were slaves
(this picture from the Washington Haggadah shows the Four questions, and at the bottom of the page, is Avadim (in large illuminated letters) chayinu.

2. Mitekhilah ovdeh avadah zarah--We were idol worshippers

3. Arami oved avi--My father was a wandering Aramean

4. B'khol dor'v'dor--In every generation

These four tellings each illuminate for us some aspect of the slave mentality. For it was not only our bodies that were enslaved, but our minds. We see this in Torah, when the erev rav (mixed multitude, or better, the rabble) that came forth from Egypt heard that only hard work and risk would bring them to eretz zavat chalav u'devash--the land flowing with milk and honey. They cried:

"If only we had died by the hand of the Eternal in Egypt!
There we sat by the fleshpots, where we ate our fill of bread!
For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this
whole congregation to death!"
(Shemot 16: 3)


"If only we had died in the land of Egypt!
Or if only we might die in this wilderness!
Why is the Eternal taking us out to that land
to fall by the sword?
...It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!
...Let us head back to Egypt!"
(B'midbar 14:1-3)


"Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness?
There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loath this
miserable food..."
(B'midbar 21: 5)

As I go about the arduous and exacting process of making Pesach, I am reminded that nothing comes for free. Not even freedom.
Our ancestors coming forth from Egypt had been enslaved and degraded from the dignity of being free human beings in a multitude of ways:

Avadim hayinu l'paro b'Mitzrayim--we were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt.
Our bodies were enslaved, and we were forced to build the store cities of Pitom and Ra'amses. Our children were not our own, but taken by Pharoah to do as he pleased with them, even to throw them into the Nile.

Mitekhila ovdeh avodah zarah--we were idol worshippers. We made the creations of our hands more precious to us than our freedom. Thus the complaining in the wilderness. The wilderness is a place where the human being confronts his own power to make his life. There is no master, no 'god or government' to save us from ourselves, to do for us what we have the power to do for ourselves.

Arami oved avi--My father was a wandering Aramean; Few in number, he went down to Egypt. And there he became a great nation...and the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and opressed us; and they imposed hard labor on us. We cried out to the Eternal, the G-d of our mothers and fathers, and G-d heard us..." (Haggadah)
The rabbis asked the question: Why did it take many generations--the generations from "he went down" to "we cried out" for G-d to raise up for us Moshe Rabbinu--Moses our Teacher, and bring us out from slavery?
They say that we had to learn what handing ourselves over to serve other gods really meant.

I think we did it to ourselves.
According to our story, Joseph, as the chacellor of Pharoah, handed over the free-holdings of Egyptian to the priests of Egypt, consolidating the power of Pharoah and the priests over all of the people. He did this in order to avert a crisis, but in so doing, he created a system in which all economic power was consolidated in the hands of a few. Then as the people of Israel grew more numerous, they presented a challenge to this power, and thus had to be degraded in order to be kept from overturning this system.

And the people were content to let their freedom slip away, as they received favors for their service, until at last they were slaves in body, mind and spirit to the whims of Pharoah. This is the slave mentality. The sense that one cannot do for oneself and ones' own people. The sense that someone else must provide purpose and sustenance. In this way, power was handed over to a master, and the people of Israel became slaves.

Then, their servitude had to become harsh enough for them to remember that slavery was not their identity. They were children of those who were "avadim Adonai"--servants of the Eternal. So Moshe said, not 'Let my people go!' but, 'Ko-amar Adonai: Shelach ami v'avduvi-- Thus says the Eternal: Send forth my people that they may serve Me!'

Va-yotzei-anu Adonai mi-Mitzrayim--And the Eternal brought us forth from Egypt--the Narrow Places of narrowed lives and expectations--because we realized that we ought to be more than slaves. But even after witnessing miracles and wonders, it still took forty years--a generation died in the wilderness--to erase the slave mentality.

Slaves do not take initiative. They whine.
Slaves do not sustain their own lives in freedom. They obey orders in order to have access to the fleshpots of Egypt. Fleshpots provided by others, the price of which is liberty.
Slaves do not take risks to preserve their integrity. They worship the idols of security and safety, fearful to come into the wide and open land "flowing with milk and honey."

Avadim chayinu...we were slaves. And we sometimes still long to be slaves, so that we do not have to take the risks of making decisions for ourselves. For freedom implies responsibility for our own lives, our own decisions, our own values.

We got rid of the slave mentality at Sinai. For there we entered into a covenant freely; a covenant that bound us to G-d, who was also bound to us through the Rule of Law. No one, not the leaders, not the tribes, not the erev rav--the mixed multitude--, not even the Eternal G-d of Israel, was above this law.

Avadim chayinu...we were slaves.
Atah b'nei we are the children of freedom.
Avadim chayinu...we were slaves.
Atah avdei ha we are the servants of the covenant.

And this is why, in the end, we are commanded to remember our degradation in detail.

B'khol dor v'dor haya adam l'riyot ha atzmo ki'ilu hu yatza mi'Mitzrayim--in every generation, each person should remember having personally come forth from Egypt (Haggadah).

Why? Because the slave mentality is easy and unlawful. And freedom takes work and the discipline of law.

But the rewards of freedom are great. Thus, although we vacillated in the wilderness, it made us into people willing to take a stand and risk everything to remain who we were born to be:
Avdei Adonai--servants of the Eternal.

Chag Sameach Pesach!
Then we were slaves. Now we are free.

"How different this night is from all others...Why?"

"We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, but Adonai our G-d brought us out, with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. And if the Holy One Blessed be G-d had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children, and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharoah in Egypt.
Now, even if all of us were scholars, and
even if all of us were sages, and
even if all of us were elders, and
even if all of us were learned in Torah,
it would still be upon us to tell the story of the
Coming Forth From Egypt.
Moreover, whoever elaborates on the Story of the
Coming Forth from Egypt deserves praise."

1 comment:

Swylv said...

this was good and deep. I like the freedom means responsibility point.