Jewish Boston published my new article “Passover: A Story of Hebrews Who Wanted to Be Egyptians:“
To most of us, the story of our exodus from Egypt is nothing but a tale. It is a fascinating story, no doubt, but is it relevant to our time? When placed against the dishes served before us on the table, it is an unfair match toward the Haggadah. However, if we knew what Passover really means to all of us, we would be “drinking up” the narrative instead of waiting for it to make way for the main event: the food.
Underneath a tale about the struggle of a nation to be free lies a description of a process that we as Jews went through, and which we are going through again today. It is with good reason that the Torah commands us to see ourselves each day as though we had just come out of Egypt. The ordeals of our ancestors should be both warning signs and traffic signs, directing us which way to go in a world fraught with uncertainty and trepidation.
Israel’s Heydays in Egypt
When Joseph’s brothers went into Egypt, they had it all. Joseph the Hebrew was the de facto ruler of Egypt. With Pharaoh’s blessing, he determined everything that happened in Egypt, as Pharaoh said to Joseph: “You shall be over my house, and according to your command all my people shall do homage. …See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt. …I am Pharaoh, yet without your permission no one shall raise his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt” (Gen 41:40-44).
Thanks to Joseph’s wisdom, Egypt not only became a superpower, but also enslaved its neighboring nations and took their people’s money, land, and flocks (Gen 47:14-19). And the prime beneficiaries from Egypt’s success were Joseph’s family, the Hebrews. Pharaoh said to Joseph: “The land of Egypt is at your disposal; settle your father and your brothers in the best of the land, let them live in the land of Goshen [the richest, most lush part of Egypt], and if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock” (Gen 47:6).
There is a good reason why Joseph became so successful. Three generations earlier, his great-grandfather, Abraham, found a method for healing all of life’s problems. Midrash Rabbah tells us that when Abraham saw his townspeople in Ur of the Chaldeans fighting one another, it deeply troubled him. After much reflection, he realized that they were growing increasingly egoistic and could no longer get along. The hatred between them was causing them to quarrel and fight, sometimes to the death. Abraham realized that the ego could not be obliterated, but could be covered with love by focusing on connection rather than separation. This is why Abraham is regarded as the symbol of kindness, hospitality, and mercy.
Although Nimrod, king of Babylon, expelled Abraham from Babylon, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Chapter 1) and many other books describe how he wandered toward the land of Israel and gathered tens of thousands of followers who understood that unity above hatred is the key to a successful life. By the time he had arrived in the land of Israel, he was a wealthy and prosperous man, or as the Torah describes him, “And Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold” (Gen 13:2).
Abraham passed his knowledge on to all of his disciples and descendants. According to Maimonides, “Abraham planted this tenet [of unity above hatred] in their hearts, composed books about it, and taught his son, Isaac. Isaac sat and taught Jacob, and appointed him a teacher, to sit and teach… and Jacob our Father taught all his sons” (Mishneh Torah, Chapter 1). Joseph, from the Hebrew word osef (assembling/gathering), was Jacob’s prime disciple and strove to implement his father’s teaching. In Egypt, Joseph’s dream of uniting all the brothers under him came true, and everyone benefitted from this. This was the heyday of the Hebrews’ stay in Egypt.
How the Tables Turned Against Us
Everything changed when Joseph died. As it happens every time throughout our history, when Jews are successful, their egos overcome them and they wish to abandon the way of unity and become like the locals. This abandonment is always the beginning of a turn for the worse, until finally a tragedy or an ordeal forces us to reunite. Egypt was no exception. Midrash Rabbah (Exodus, 1:8) writes that “When Joseph died they said, ‘Let us be as the Egyptians.’ Because they did so, the Creator turned the love that the Egyptians held for them into hatred, as it was said (Ps 105), ‘He turned their heart to hate His people, to abuse His servants.’”
The Book of Consciousness (Chapter 22) writes even more explicitly that had the Hebrews not abandoned their way of unity, they would not have suffered. The book begins by quoting the Midrash I just mentioned, but then it adds, “Pharaoh looked at the children of Israel after Joseph and did not recognize Joseph in them,” meaning the quality of assembling, the tendency to unite.
And because “New faces were made, Pharaoh declared new decrees upon them. You see, my son,” the book concludes, “all the dangers and all the miracles and tragedies are all from you, because of you, and on account of you.” In other words, the good Pharaoh turned against us because we had abandoned Joseph’s way, the way of unity above hatred.
When Moses came along, he knew that the only way that he could save his people was to pull them out of Egypt, out of the egoism that was destroying their relations. The name Moshe (Moses), says the book Torat Moshe (Exodus, 2:10), comes from the Hebrew word moshech (pulling) because he pulled the people out of the evil inclination.
Yet, even when he pulled them out, they were still in danger of falling back into egoism. They received their “signet” as a nation only when they reenacted Abraham’s method of uniting above hatred. Once they pledged to unite “as one man with one heart,” they were declared a “nation.” At the foot of Mt. Sinai, from the word sinaa (hatred), the Hebrews united and thereby covered their hatred with love. This is when they became a Jewish nation, as the book Yaarot Devash (Part 2, Drush no. 2) writes, Yehudi (Jewish) comes from the word yechudi (united).
The Pharaoh and Moses Within Us
It has been many centuries since this epic story unfolded, yet it seems that we have learned very little. Look at our current values, we are just as corrupt as the Hebrews were after Joseph’s death. By “corrupt,” I am not saying that we must avoid life’s amenities. Neither Abraham nor Joseph was abstinent in any way. By corrupt, I mean that we are shamelessly selfish, narcissistic, and promote these values wherever we go. We are arrogant, self-entitled, and have completely lost our Jewishness, meaning our tendency to unite. In consequence, just as the Egyptians turned against the Hebrews when they abandoned Joseph’s way, the world is turning against us today.
Pharaoh and Moses are not historical figures; they live within us and determine our relationships on a moment-to-moment basis. Every time we let hatred govern our relationships, we re-crown the Pharaoh within us. And every time we make an effort to unite, we revive Moses and the oath to strive to be “as one man with one heart.” Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, described our situation beautifully in a speech he gave last year: “In the last few years, we saw an unprecedented polarization and ugliness in the Jewish community. Those who think differently are considered enemies or traitors, and those who disagree with us are demonized.” This is precisely the rule of Pharaoh.
Being Jewish does not necessarily entail observing specific customs or living in a specific country. Being Jewish entails placing unity above all else. However fierce our hatred, we must rise above it and unite.
Even The Book of Zohar writes explicitly about the paramount importance of unity above hatred. In the portion Aharei Mot, The Zohar writes, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to also sit together. These are the friends as they sit together, and are not separated from each other. At first, they seem like people at war, wishing to kill one another. Then they return to being in brotherly love. …And you, the friends who are here, as you were in fondness and love before, henceforth you will also not part … And by your merit there will be peace in the world.”
Learning From the Past
Versions of the story of Egypt have occurred throughout our history. The Greeks conquered the land of Israel because we wanted to be like them, to worship the ego. We even did the fighting for them as Hellenized Jews fought against the Maccabees. Less than two centuries later, the Temple was ruined because of our unfounded hatred for each other. We were deported and murdered in Spain when we wanted to be Spaniards and abandoned our unity, and we were exterminated in Europe by the country where Jews wanted to forget about our unity and assimilate. In 1929, Dr. Kurt Fleischer, leader of the Liberals in the Berlin Jewish Community Assembly, accurately expressed our centuries’ long problem: “Anti-Semitism is the scourge that God has sent us in order to lead us together and weld us together.” What a tragedy it is that the Jews back then did not unite.
As though we are incapable of learning, today we are placing ourselves in the exact same position we always do. We have become slaves to our self-entitlement and arrogance, and we do not want to be Jewish, meaning united. We are letting Pharaoh rule all over again. What good can we expect to come out of this? We must not be blind again; we should know better by now.
In each of us there is a Moses, a point that moshech (pulls) toward unity. Yet, we must crown it willingly. We must choose to liberate ourselves from the shackles of the ego and unite above our hatred. This may seem like an impassable mountain to climb, but we are not expected to succeed, only to agree and make an effort. Just as the Hebrews were declared a nation and were liberated from Egypt when they agreed to unite, we also need only agree to unite, and the rest will follow. We will find within us the power and ability to unite.
In this Passover, we really must pass over from unfounded hatred, the blight of our people, and restore our brotherhood. Let’s make this Passover one of rapprochement, reconciliation, and accord. Let’s turn this holiday into a fresh start for our nation. Let’s put some seder (order) in the relations between us and be what we are meant to be, “a light unto nations,” spreading the glitter of unity throughout the world and to our brethren. If we only try, I know that we will have a happy Passover, a Passover of love, unity, and brotherhood.