Tapping into the Collective Consciousness
At the Passover Seder, we read the mandate that,
In every generation, each person should see himself or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt.
Scholars explain that this statement is a reminder that even when we feel free, our next oppressor may be around the corner.
At this point in the Seder, it is common to reflect on other moments in history when Jewish people have been oppressed or persecuted. This is consistent with other Jewish practices to remember moments of sadness even in happy times.
To be Jewish is to be constantly reminded that other nations are out to destroy you. This type of collective consciousness gets embedded in our nervous systems and passed down from one generation to the next.
At my family’s Seder, we pause to acknowledge our immediate ancestors who were killed in the Holocaust. My grandmother’s parents and brother were killed by the Nazis; she survived thanks to the grace of Oskar Schindler. My grandfather’s mother and sisters were also killed.
On both a familial level and a cultural level, the sense of oppression lives in my subconscious awareness.
The Persistence of the Victim Mindset
Although it is true that the Jews have been targets for destruction throughout history — from the Egyptians to the Babylonians, from Haman to Hitler, from the rise of anti-semitisim in American and Europe to attack by Arab nations — it is also true that the Jewish people have prevailed time and again.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that the contribution of the Jewish people is far greater than our numbers. As a people, we have shown a tenacity not just to survive, but to thrive; not simply to live, but to rise in service to the world.
And, yet, the victim mindset remains part of the collective consciousness of Jewish identity.
Even in the happiest of times, there is always a prevailing sense of pain around the corner. It’s that feeling of “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
Interesting, I never felt this sense of foreboding doom from my grandparents.
Reframing the Victim Mindset
The Exodus is a defining moment — perhaps the defining moment — in the history of the Jewish people. It is mentioned in daily prayers and in the weekly sanctification of the Sabbath. From that moment on, God defined himself to the people as “the God who took you out of Egypt.”
I find it hard to believe that these reminders are intended to reinforce a victim mindset. So I set out to reframe this obligation that “in every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt.”
There must be more to this than remembering how my ancestors have been persecuted throughout history.
What else could this mean?
This one requires a little bit of context, but stick with me here. I promise it comes together.
The Focus of the Seder
First, let’s look at the focus of the Seder. In the retelling of the story of the Exodus, we don’t spend much time on the actual Exodus itself. Most of the focus is very “meta”: we talk about how the customs were observed in ancient times.
Two of the high-points of the retelling are when we recount the ten plagues and the enumeration of all the miracles that God performed in the desert, which we sing in the song Daiyenu.
The Implications of Language
Next, let’s look at the language. The command is to see ourselves as if we left Egypt.
No Mention of Freedom
We typically think of Passover as a holiday celebrating freedom, as in “God freed the Israelites from slavery.” But there is no mention of freedom at all. Not here and not anywhere else in the Haggadah.
What Should We See?
The requirement to see ourselves as if we had personally left Egypt seems strange too. The great scholar Maimonedies read this in a different way. Instead of reading the Hebrew word l’roat — to see — he read it as l’haroat — to show.
The answers to these questions give a new meaning to this central mandate that help reframe the victim mindset.
Freedom From vs Freedom To
The Israelites were liberated from the bondage of slavery. But they were still imprisoned by their mindset.
Driven out of Egypt, they found themselves drifting in the desert. They complained about not having food and water. Not sure where they were going and how long it would take, they were filled with doubt and fear.
They asked Moses if they could return to Egypt.
Why would they want to return to slavery?
To use a cliche: the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.
We are motivated to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
In Egypt, they had certainty. They knew the rules. The desert was a place of uncertainty, and that uncertainty caused so much fear that the known pain of slavery appeared to be a less painful option than the mystery of what would unfold in the desert.
The Path of Divine Grace and Cultivating Faith
The Israelites had just witnessed the ten plagues. Their first-born children were spared from death. Moses led them out of Egypt. It would seem that these experiences would have helped the Israelites trust God.
But even in the slower news-cycle era of ancient times, they quickly forgot the miracles they witnessed.
In response to the people’s doubts, God did what he did in Egypt: provided the people with evidence of Divine Grace, combined with a test of their faith.
God instructed Moses and Aaron to tap a rock, which responded by producing water. For food, God sent them the manna.
A Test of Faith
The manna came with rules: each person could only take as much as he needed for that one day, and no more. They also had to eat their manna each day; they could not save any part of their portion for the next day.
These rules were counter to the natural tendencies of human nature. A hungry person is naturally inclined to take more than he can eat in one sitting. Unsure of when his next meal will be, he desires to save some for later.
Therefore, this was a test of the people’s faith. It asked them to stay in the present and focus on only on one day at a time, to trust that they would receive what they needed when they needed it.
If they had faith that God would fulfill his promise to give more manna the next day, they would adhere to the rules. If not, they would violate the rules.
Like the blood on the doorpost, this test required the Israelites to show their faith in public. Manna was gathered in public. If someone took more than his share, everyone would see.
This act of faith gave the Israelites freedom from their doubts and fears around food and water. With their physical needs met, they gained freedom to live in the moment.
Like your kids on a road trip, once they knew they were eating, they could release their worries about where they were going and how long it would take to get there.
Unlocking the Prison of Fear
We forget that there is a higher power guiding us and that we don’t need to know the details or the destination.
The Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt after they publicly displayed their faith. They were freed from uncertainty in the desert after they publicly displayed their faith.
The lesson from the Ten Plagues and from the miracles in the desert is that the key to our freedom lies in our choice to embrace our faith.
Faith is the key that unlocks the prison of fear.
When we trust that where we are in this moment is exactly where we are supposed to be, and that we will be receive what we need when we need it, we find freedom from the prison of doubt and fear.
Faith comes first.
But silent faith is not enough. Faith requires that we take action in public — that we show our faith to others through our action.
Faith Requires Public Action
At the time of the Exodus, the public actions were blood on the doorpost and gathering only as much manna as they needed.
Today, the actions of faith are woven into the fabric of Jewish culture and ritual. We put a mezuzah on our door as a sign of protection.
Many of the Jewish holidays equire some type of action that is visible to the public: building a Sukkah outside, putting the Chanukah candles in the window, dancing in the street with the Torah on Simchat Torah, blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
Reframing “In every generation”
The most dangerous oppressor is not an outside force; it is an inner demon: the doubts and fears that creep up in our minds.
The imperative for us to “see ourselves as if we, personally, had left Egypt” reminds us that each of us has the power to free ourselves from this mindset prison.
The key to our freedom lies in our willingness to open our eyes to the daily miracles and moments of Divine grace, and our willingness to show our faith through public action.
Faith comes first.