A popular view of the Passover story is that God liberated his people from slavery and rescued them from the cruelty of Egyptian bondage. The Israelites were then free. Hooray. But this is not the end of the story. To understand Passover, continue reading the Hebrew Bible.
Following Moses out of Egypt and into the desert was a noble leap of faith for the former slaves. They feared starvation, thirst and attack from hostile tribes but they went anyway. Yet the five books of Moses criticize the Hebrews' behavior during their 40 years in the Sinai desert.
After leaving Egypt, the Israelites engaged in a litany of complaints and insurrections against Moses and Aaron. The most egregious one was the sin of the golden calf. This episode featured an impatient nation, unable to cope with even the slightest delay in Moses' descent from Mount Sinai. They formed a violent mob against Aaron, who felt threatened and succumbed to their aggressive demand to build a golden calf.
"And the nation saw Moses delayed in coming down the mountain and they grouped together [ויקהל] against Aaron and said to him, 'get up and fashion a god to lead us because we do not know what happened to this man Moses who took us out of Egypt'." (Exodus 32:1) (Emphasis added)
Such behavior arises from an attitude of entitlement, dependence, and fear. The liberated tribes of Israel had a weak faith in their leaders, God, and themselves, so they fell back on the bully tactics they experienced as slaves. They missed the point that God took them out of Egypt, not Moses, and reverted to the habit of deifying a human, either Pharaoh or Moses. The Passover Haggadah remedies this flaw by conspicuously de-emphasizing Moses during the Seder night.
The liberated Israelites still had a dependent mindset. Without a self-reliant outlook, a society cannot achieve sustained freedom. The emancipated slaves longed for the guaranteed sustenance of a slave state. "And all the congregation of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. And the Children of Israel said 'It would have been better if we had died by the hand of God in Egypt where we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to satiety, but you have taken us to this wilderness to kill this entire congregation in famine.' " (Exodus 16:2-3) (Emphasis added)
Later in the biblical narrative, Korach and his followers of ingrates raised the banner of envy and equality to stir yet another insurrection against Moses and Aaron. "And they grouped together [ויקהלו] against Moses and Aaron and said to them 'It is enough for you, for all of this congregation is holy and God dwells among it, why should you be rulers above the congregation of God?'" (Numbers 16:3) (Emphasis added)
Angry crowds swarming and targeting individuals typified each of these biblical episodes. The human weaknesses of impatience, fear, entitlement, dependence, and envy are pernicious. We live in an age drowning in these traits. They create ugly mobs, either physical ones in the Sinai desert, or virtual mobs on Twitter or Facebook. Immature and fearful behaviors such as safe spaces, trigger warnings, and dis-inviting speakers to campus are the disturbing fruit of these character flaws.
For the last 15 years, educators in the United States have sounded the alarm about over-sensitive, indoctrinated, college students who nurse their resentment to keep it warm. Students organize and gang up on individual professors and college administrators.
One egregious example of this occurred at Evergreen State College, a bastion of progressivism and anti-racism. The College's liberal record did not stop its students from becoming angry and violent social justice warriors. Since the 1970s Evergreen College had a custom called the "Day of Absence" where faculty and students of color voluntarily stayed off campus to highlight their contributions to college life. In May 2017 the event organizers switched things up and ordered that white faculty and students must absent themselves from the campus, whether or not they wished to do so. One professor, Bret Weinstein, refused to stay away from campus, citing the difference between a group who absences itself on its own volition, and another group forced to stay away against its will.
This professor was mobbed by an organized group of students who shouted coarse expletives at him and threatened his person. Some of these so-called protestors claimed that Professor Weinstein's opinions made them "fearful for their lives". They then marched into the College President's office and shouted vulgarities at him as well, calling for Weinstein's ouster. They held the President, and other college administrators, hostage for several hours.
Mobs use fear and alleged victimhood as excuses to bully and torment others. In the United States and other Western countries, this trend has spilled outside the gates of the universities and into social media, political and corporate life. The tyranny of the mob thrives when citizens feel helpless, dependent, and fearful.
During an interview with David Rubin, the CEO of Patreon, a crowd-funding platform for creators, explained his company's cancellation protocols when it receives too many negative reports about "objectionable" creators on its platform. Patreon calls this cancellation protocol "Manifest Observable Behavior", whose initials coincidentally form the word MOB.
Whether the mob is live, online, or an algorithm, when it sees itself as a victim it gangs up and bullies perceived oppressors. These oppressors may be imagined or real, intentional or unintentional, celebrities or unknown, powerful or weak. It does not matter. The mob must have its target.
Slavery in Egypt scarred the Israelites morally and psychologically. They were not ready for the true freedom necessary to build a civil society in the land of Israel. The slave generation had to pass on, and a new generation, born outside state imposed slavery and reliance, forged a new free nation in the Promised Land.
Back in 1937, Justice Cardozo, in Palko v. Connecticut, coined the phrase "ordered liberty", meaning the basic legal structure required to balance competing rights and obligations in a free society. When Israel embraced the Ten Commandments and their amplification in the Torah, they received the foundation for ordered liberty, the true fount of lasting freedom. Only then were they ready for the next stage of mature nation building.
The antidote to the entitlement, envy, dependence, and fear which weaken freedom is an attitude of self reliance, gratitude and courage. These traits make us more independent, charitable, and free. We find this in the Passover Haggadah when the story of the evening moves from the cruelty of Egypt to the abundant praise for God's compassion and generosity.
The spirit of fear, resentment, and mob censorship weakens freedom, the spirit of "Dayenu", or gratitude for every mercy and opportunity, strengthens freedom. Every generation must learn these lessons, or other tyrannical ideas fill the vacuum. Here lies the genius of the Passover Haggadah, which has proven to be an effective exemplar of freedom through the ages.
Ann P. Levin is a former criminal and family law litigator, and is now a legal writing instructor in Israel. She is the author of Burning But Never Consumed: The Hebrew Bible in Turbulent Times, now available in Kindle and Paperback on Amazon. You can write to her at [email protected].