World history, from ancient to current, is replete with stories of revolutions going sour. An oppressed, downtrodden populace revolts against its tyrannical government, spurred on by the noble goal of guaranteeing liberty and equal rights for all. Not long after seizing power, those same revolutionaries become the establishment themselves, often becoming as corrupt and repressive as the predecessors they so valiantly ousted. (The American Revolution was thankfully an exception to this phenomenon.)
The freed slave becomes the most oppressive tyrant.
The above not only illustrates the corrupting influence of power, it represents a common psychological reaction to trauma. People who suffered in their past have a tendency to reenact – with a vengeance – the same wrongs done to them. They compensate for their own past helplessness by doling out the same treatment to their own inferiors, to avenge the world of the misery inflicted upon them. The freed slave becomes the most oppressive tyrant. And likewise – tragically – the abused child is so much likelier to grow into an abuser himself.
There is a second way people tend to deal with difficult past experiences. They simply put them out of mind. They suppress their traumatic past – at times this is necessary to preserve their sanity – and start life anew. Pretend the awful, abusive childhood never happened, and start life anew at the age of 19. Pretend the last ten years of my life were not spent behind bars. Just put it out of mind and start living life today.
The Passover Seder, apart from being an inspiring commemoration of our miraculous history, teaches us a healthier way of dealing with our past. And the person who best exemplifies this message is our patriarch Abraham.
The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) states that Abraham first began to recognize God at the tender age of 3. As soon as he began to acquire mental awareness and perceptive faculties, he began looking around and wondering. He saw a beautiful, magnificent world and recognized that only an infinite Creator could have fashioned it and set it in motion. Abraham saw through the finite idols of his time and began to develop a relationship with God.
The Talmud infers that Abraham discovered God at so young an age from Genesis 26:5. God promises Isaac great blessings “since Abraham hearkened to my voice and observed my charge…” The word “since” in the verse (“eikev”) has numerological value (gematria) 172. The hidden implication is that Abraham served God for 172 years. Now since Abraham lived till the ripe old age of 175 (Gen. 25:7) and served God for 172 of them, he must have begun at the age of 3.
Maimonides, however, no doubt following different Midrashic statements, states that Abraham discovered God at the much more plausible age of 40 (Laws of Idolatry 1:3). As Maimonides explains, Abraham grew up among idolaters and practiced idolatry himself. But all along he recognized the unfulfilling shallowness of their ways. He realized that there must be some Greater Force behind the physicality of the finite world. He began searching and examining, and finally came to a clear recognition of God at the age of 40.
Now if Maimonides’ depiction of Abraham’s early life is correct, does it mean he simply argues with the Talmud which states that Abraham served God from the age of 3? In fact, Maimonides wrote explicitly that Abraham served idols before he realized the truth. Are the two opinions simply contradictory?
My teacher Rabbi Yochanan Zweig explained as follows. It is true that Abraham’s understanding of God did not really crystallize until he was 40. As precocious as he no doubt was, 3 is 3. Most human beings are not much more than potty trained by that age. But considering more carefully Genesis 26, the Torah did not say Abraham discovered God at 3, just that he served God for 172 years. Now how can Abraham be said to be serving God if he was still trying idolatry?
The answer is that once Abraham turned 40 and did recognize God, he used his past 37 years to serve God too. How did he do this? By using his very past experiences to impart his wisdom to others. Once Abraham understood God, he (later together with Sarah) taught the knowledge of God to the masses. Maimonides states that Abraham spread monotheism to the tens of thousands. How was he so successful? Because he could relate to the heathens; after all, he was once an idolater himself. He knew where they were coming from and the challenges they faced.
Thus, although Abraham himself was not a true believer until the age of 40, he used all of his past years of discovery – when he examined, reflected, and tested out idol after idol – as a means of relating to and influencing all those not as fortunate as he. Thus in retrospect, Abraham did serve God for 172 years. He used all his past years of searching and discovery for the benefit of mankind.
The Talmud tells us that at the Passover Seder we “start from the bad and end with the good” (Pesachim 116a). We do not ignore the past and pretend it never occurred. We do not act as if our history began 200 years later with the Exodus. We specifically commemorate the past – both the good and the bad. We recount the story as if we are living through it today. We use the matzah – the very “bread of affliction” we ate as slaves – to celebrate our deliverance. And we taste the marror, the bitter herbs, every year to commemorate just how bitter our bondage was. For our goal at the Seder is not to forget the past or celebrate that it’s over, but to remember it – and to recognize how much greater we are today as a result.
We remember the bad experience of slavery – and use it.
The Talmud offers two explanations of “starting with the bad and ending with the good.” One is that we recite in the Haggadah, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt...” We remember the bad experience of slavery – and use it. As slaves we gained the ability to work hard, to obey unquestioningly the commands of a master. We became disciplined and hard-working, able to put aside our own comfort to realize great achievements. These are the lessons we commemorate at the Seder – today using those same abilities to devote ourselves to an all-loving God rather than a capricious Pharaoh.
At the same time, slavery made us more caring and more sympathetic of the oppressed. The Midrash teaches us that as the slavery began in Egypt, the Jews made a contract among themselves to help each other out in their times of need. Likewise, the Torah many times tells us to act kindly to the stranger, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (e.g. Exodus 22:20). We remember our past misery – not to at last lord over the oppressed ourselves but to feel their pain and to do what we can to help.
The Talmud offers a second explanation of starting from the bad – by reciting “At first our forefathers were idolaters...” We take the story of the Exodus not only back to the bondage, but all the way back to our earliest history – Abraham’s birth among the idol worshippers of Ur Kasdim. For this too is what we want to remember. Abraham began from the most humble of origins – and as a result was able to teach about God to the tens of thousands. We too have a mission to mankind, to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 42:6). And we can do it – because we were there ourselves. We know what suffering is and we know what it means to wallow in empty idolatry. And as a result, we can spread monotheism and human compassion to all mankind.
Based on a lecture heard from Rabbi Yochanan Zweig www.talmudicu.edu