As we prepare for Passover seder here is my question: Are you an Israelite or an Egyptian?
I don’t mean the Egyptians of today, of course. Rather, it might be asked this way -- in your home, are you closer to the slave or the slavemaster?
We are told in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person must think of him (or her) self as if he was a slave in Egypt. “ For much of Jewish history the leap in imagination was not so great. Jews were poor, and often oppressed. Today however, this sentence should have an additional implication to Jews with receptive hearts.
Recent studies demonstrate that the more power one attains inside an organization, the less empathetic one becomes to those who have less power. Power, in other words, dulls our compassion. As your authority grows, your empathy correspondingly diminishes. Control diminishes care.
So this Passover don’t only imagine yourself a slave -- imagine yourself an Egyptian.
The Exodus tale is not only about the sufferings of the slaves, but the heartlessness of the masters. The plagues remind us how difficult it is to break through the shell of indifference. Throughout history, perpetrators and bystanders form an unholy coalition that creates suffering. Around the Seder table we promise to do our best to stand with victims, wherever they may be -- even in our own homes.
Many of us employ other people in their homes, their businesses, to take care of our children. Not slaves, to be sure, but people over whom we have power. Do we consider the nanny’s taking care of our children more important than taking care of her own? Does the desire for a clean house entitle us to be unkind, tyrannical, to pay meager wages, to recall in spirit, if not in fact, Egypt of old? How late do you keep “the help” at the Seder -- and do you thank and compensate them adequately?
Ritual is not an end in itself. If it does not change our heart and our behavior, then it is blasphemy, not sanctity. To sit at a Seder table and talk about the sufferings of slaves, only to act cruelly to employees, is to negate the purpose of Passover. Passover is about expanding the circle of our compassion; with each repetition of the story our souls should be deepened.
The great moral test of life is not how we treat those who have power over us, but how we treat those over whom we have power. The Talmud teaches a true Jew is known by his or her compassion. It is a Hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, to treat those in our power cruelly; it is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name, to be merciful and kind. Remember Egypt; and for those you employ on this and all other nights, act like an Israelite.
David Wolpe, an On Faith panelist, who is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and currently teaches at UCLA.