Next week we will celebrate the liberation of our people from slavery to freedom as we sit around the Seder table on Passover night. On this holiday, we tend to focus our attention on the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh, and the enslavement of the Hebrews. But if we look at the story of our people in Egypt from a broader perspective, we will see how it weaves into the peculiar narrative of our nation’s history.
The exodus from Egypt is the culmination of a centuries-long process that began when a Babylonian pundit named Abraham discovered what was wrong with humanity and tried to tell the world about it. Abraham, so Maimonides tells us in Mishneh Torah, was an inquisitive young man whose father, Terah, was a high-ranking priest and the owner of an idol shop in downtown Ur, a bustling city in ancient Babylon.
Selling idols and amulets was good business, but Abraham was displeased because he noticed that his townspeople were growing increasingly unhappy. Night after night, Abraham would ponder the enigma of the Babylonians’ woes until he discovered a profound truth: Humans are devoid of kindness. The book Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 24) describes how Abraham observed the builders of the Tower of Babylon and saw them quarreling. He tried to persuade them to stop fighting and cooperate, but they would only laugh at him. Eventually, they fought each other to death, and the tower was never completed.
Distraught by what he saw, Abraham began to tell his countryfolk to leave their egos and hatred aside, and focus on connection, brotherhood, and love of others. Instead of fighting, he suggested they would rise above their hateful egos and unite.
As Abraham began to garner followers, he caught the king’s attention. Nimrod, king of Babylon, was not happy with Abraham’s increasing popularity and tried to kill him. When the attempt failed, King Nimrod expelled Abraham and his entourage from Babylon. As he wandered toward what was to become the land of Israel, Abraham and his wife Sarah would speak to anyone who cared to listen, and many did. Before very long, Abraham’s group numbered thousands and tens of thousands of disciples and followers.
Maimonides continues to describe how Abraham composed books and taught whomever he could. He details how Abraham indoctrinated his son Isaac into the notion of connection above hatred, and how Isaac taught Jacob the exact same tenet.
After a few generations, a unique assembly of people was created. They were not yet a nation, but they were united in a way that no other society had been prior to them. Their “glue” was the idea that human egoism and hatred of others can be triumphed only by working on the deepening of unity and mutual love. These people had no biological affinity, yet their solidarity grew stronger by the day thanks to their efforts to unite despite their initial unfamiliarity.
The presence of the Hebrews in Egypt and their exodus from there were the final stages in the forging of the Israeli nation. When they came out, they stood before Mt. Sinai, whose name derives from the Hebrew word, sinaa (hatred). They sent Moses, who united them in Egypt, to scale the mountain and bring back the Torah—the code of unity—and prepared themselves to receive it by committing to be “as one man with one heart.” With this commitment, they passed their inauguration test and were declared not only a nation, but a nation tasked with being a role model of unity, “a light unto nations.”
Evil to the Core
The formation of the Israeli nation is a beautiful and multilayered story. On the face of it, it narrates the unlikely formation of a nation from complete strangers. Yet, underneath the narrative lies an inner battle that each of us faces, whether he or she lives in ancient Babylon, Egypt, or in today’s New York or Tel-Aviv.
The process of formation of the people of Israel depicts the battle between our innate hatred of others and the need to connect with others. The Torah states several times that we are evil to the core. “The inclination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen 8:21), “Every inclination of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil” (Gen 6:5), and “Sin crouches at the door” (Gen 4:7) are just a few examples of the Torah’s depiction of human nature.
Worse yet, our egoism grows persistently. This means that if we do not find a way to overcome it, we will consume each other and destroy our planet. The Midrash tells us: “A man does not leave the world with half his desire in his hand. Rather, if he has one hundred, he wants to have two hundred, and if he has two hundred, he wants to have four hundred” (Kohelet Rabbah 3:13). For this reason, Abraham’s approach of leaving the unstoppable ego alone and focusing on enhancing connection and unity instead is the only viable solution to the human condition.
The story of the exodus from Egypt symbolizes better than any other Biblical epos the inner struggle between the ego and the necessity to connect above it. Pharaoh, says the book Noam Elimelech, is the evil inclination, the hatred and vicious envy that we feel toward others. The name Moshe (Moses), says the book Torat Moshe, comes from the Hebrew word moshech (pulling), for he pulled people out of the evil inclination. Moses is the force with which we overcome our mutual hatred and unite. The ten plagues, the miraculous escape from Egypt across the divided waters of the sea, and the gathering of the people around Mt. Sinai, the mountain of hatred, are the final showdown after which the people are liberated from the evil inclination and merit the title “nation.”
Egypt Is Right Here
The heroic story we recite each year is far more than a shared collective memory. It is a battle we are all engaged in. Pharaoh, the evil inclination, has turned our 21st century world into a contemporary Egypt, where egoism is king and narcissism is the trend. The polluted and war-stricken world, the polarized society, the ubiquitous depression and sickening trends such as live broadcasts of suicide on Facebook, all indicate that Pharaoh is the king on our planet, and our world is Egypt.
Yet, just as we have our inner Pharaoh, we also have our inner Moses. We all concur that a cohesive society is far better than a fractured one, but we are too timid and uncertain to attempt to change society. Our inner Moses cannot succeed alone. Without directing all of our forces and desires toward connection, we will remain in Egypt, slaves to our egos, and the world will continue to go from bad to worse.
The current factions of our tribe are so divided that if we had to commit today to be “as one man with one heart” and thereby be declared a nation, we would unanimously decline because we are willful slaves to our egos. In Hebrew, the word Jew (Yehudi) comes from the word united (yihudi), writes the book Yaarot Devash. As long as we remain apart, we are not Jews, just as we were not Jews before we united and agreed to strive to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Freedom from Egypt means freedom from the ego’s rule. Escaping Pharaoh means that we refuse to be hateful to each other, that we will do everything we can to rise above our differences and unite, just as Moses climbed Mt. Sinai and Israel triumphed the sinaa (hatred) in their hearts.
This year, as we sit around the Passover table and recite the Ten Plagues, let us remember that each plague stands for another blow to separation and egoism, and another triumph for love of others and connection. In trying times such as ours, our unity counts the most. Our unity will restore our peoplehood, will make us “a light unto nations,” an example of solidarity and cohesion, and will free us from the scourge of narcissism and the rest of our social ills.
In conclusion, let us remember the words of the wisest man of all time, King Solomon: “Hate stirs strife, but love covers all crimes” (Prov 10:12).
Happy and kosher Passover, dear people of Israel.michaellaitman