Our sages describe the slavery of Egypt as being so all-encompassing that even our thoughts were no longer our own. Some accounts say that God Himself had to provide us the strength even to groan in misery–we were no longer capable to cry out and beg for rescue. So devalued, and so overwhelmed with that contempt, it’s not surprising to learn that four-fifths of the Jewish People were fine remaining slaves and didn’t bother to participate in the Exodus. Of course, these people were lost in history, as have been so many of our ancestors over time (perhaps less than one-tenth of the Jews in Persian exile bothered to return with Ezra and Nechamiah).
I don’t find much value in dismissing those people as merely “assimilated”, as “not committed to yiddishkeit“, or as “materialistic” or “self-hating” (although perhaps “self-devaluing”, is a good description). Rather, it’s more accurate to describe them as having passed the point of no return on the road to dispirit. They were “self-hating” in that they’d integrated into themselves the Egyptians’ (and Persians’ and Romans’ and Germans’ and… and…. and…..) loathing for them. After generations of being treated as dirt with nothing to contribute but blind muscle, with no worthwhile culture of our own, we, too begin to see ourselves this way, and we easily race to complete self-alienation.
How did the one-fifth, people who, like their brothers, had all their fight and spirit kicked out of them, develop the gumption to even hear Moshe, let alone to later follow him into the desert? How could a leader who didn’t believe in himself generate any faith at all within people who didn’t feel themselves worth saving? More important, how can we, individually and as a people, develop, at the very least, not only the self-esteem to believe that we are worth being freed from both our personal and communal ghettos, but also the self-confidence that we actually can survive the “desert” and reach our destiny? In our time, how can we learn to stand up to the tsunami of hate and lies about Israel, our nation and people, and how can we learn to confront ourselves and our self-generated acceptance of living merely at fractions of our real potential? How can we feel confident that tomorrow’s answers and insights will exceed today’s, freeing us to move into, rather than deny, the future? Bluntly, how can we outgrow crippling self-pity and self-contempt?
To be honest, I don’t have a magic answer in my rabbi-manual. Of course, this question is echoed in the challenges psychologists and psychiatrists face in treating depression, and their track record ain’t so great either.
The best I can do is merely to restate and refocus the question, look for analogies and parallels which, at best, will only provoke further questions. Is there anything unique about myself? about my people? Am I bursting with gifts that only I can bring to the world? Are the insights and values of my tradition merely “a narrative”, so narrow with no benefit to mankind? Why would God bother to rescue and redeem me from the torment of Egypt? Perhaps someone else is more worthy and I should be left behind? Ultimately, why don’t I believe that the very fact that God continuously redeems and renews me proves that I am worthy?
All, perhaps, with the faith that the process itself of asking questions will reveal some hints. Isn’t that what the Seder is all about?