Mark Twain once said “A man is self-made like a chicken is self-laid.” In his wisdom, he was teaching us how we really are the sum total of the influences and natures of our history and our biology. The idea that we’re in this by ourselves is simply not helpful. It creates arrogance.
Passover reminds us not only of a particular story, but how we live that story and the stories of our past. Literally, events and stories from generations and generations ago continue to be told. They enable us to learn from the past and thus not repeat mistakes. And they add a richness to our identity.
“We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt…” Like a mantra, we repeat this each year. And we repeat the story of our liberation and we repeat the meaning of all of that. In fact, the line that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt is repeated more than any other verse in the Torah. Not only that, the events of Egyptian slavery, and the subsequent exodus, are repeated in our prayers over and over again, every single day.
About twenty-five years ago, I spoke at an African American church about Passover. After the service, the pastor told me that in their church they don’t talk about having been slaves. It’s too shameful. And I thought about how often we mention it in our tradition. The African American experience is recent in historical time; our story is almost three thousand years old. At the time, I understood that we are silent after trauma, but that there comes a time when we have to speak about it.
I believe that the ancient Hebrew people were created as a people, and entered into the relationship with God because they were outsiders. They were slaves and they were strangers. And I believe that the reason we were to keep this message – this idea and this identity – alive, was because we wouldn’t always be slaves. There would be a day, like today, where we are free and have power and status. I also know, that many of our people still see themselves as a disadvantaged minority. I don’t. I think we are richly blessed, and very strong. Yet we repeat the story and remember the past. I assert that we do it for three reasons. One, we should be grateful for what we have and who we are. Two, we should always remember that nothing is permanent. (Don’t forget, we went to Egypt because Joseph had a position of power. And don’t forget that we have experienced “golden ages” before only to find ourselves pressed and exiled.) And three, and most importantly, we must remember others who are oppressed, enslaved, impoverished and hungry. The recollection of our experiences creates empathy with all human beings who are less fortunate.
When you believe you are self-made, you become arrogant. When you remember where you came from, you can remain humble.
Tonight, we will retell the story of Passover. I encourage to think about why we have been doing this for thousands of years.
I wish you meaningful and joyful seders. I hope you gain great satisfaction from the kids around the table; engage them! After all, we don’t want them to grow up thinking they are self-made!
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach….and of course, I mean it when I say I hope to see you in shul.
Rabbi David Steinhardt
This column is dedicated to the memory of Rubin Shafran z”l