Pesach: An End to Victimhood

(First published as on Op-ed in the Jewish Press, March 28, 2012)

The Midrash (Shmot Raba 18:12) describes “leil shimurim”, the “night of watching,” the night before the redemption, as one of the glorious nights in Jewish history. Not only did we eat the Korban Pesach, have the first seder and prepare to depart the land of Egypt, but also it later became the night that Chizkiyahu, Chanania, Mishael, Azaria, Daniel and others were saved – and the night on which “Moshiach and Eliyahu mitgadlin,”on which they are elevated, become great – or according to another text, the night they are mitgalim – revealed. But what does it mean that on these days they are magnified or revealed?

It is not as if they actually appear. The Gemara says in Eruvin 43a that if a person vows to become a Nazir on whatever day Moshiach comes, then he is allowed to drink wine on every Shabbat and Yom Tov because Moshiach obviously does not come on those days. Furthermore, “we have been promised that Moshiach will not come on the eve of Shabbat or Yom Tov either, because of the inconvenience” – people are busy preparing for those holy days! So how then are Moshaich and Eliyahu exalted or revealed at the seder if they cannot come?

The Jewish people left Egypt at high noon on 15 Nisan 3334 years ago, but Egypt did not leave us for a much longer period of time. At the Red Sea, we reacted like a nation of slaves, and throughout our sojourn in the wilderness, we exhibited a slave mentality – bemoaning our fate, and glamorizing and/or understating the travails of Egypt. We were told four days before the Exodus to take the deities of Egypt and to slaughter them on the 14th, in full sight of the Egyptians – to show our inner strength and our relief from Egyptian domination, to show that we have broken away from the psychological stranglehold they had on us. It did not completely succeed. We were ill-equipped for freedom, and understandably so. Slavery, persecution, dehumanization, and extermination take their toll on the psyche. Victims do not recover instantly or easily. It takes time to wean out of our system the lingering effects of maltreatment, and until then, victimization is comfortable. It becomes an excuse for every failure, every inaction, and sometimes for every misdeed.

We all marvel at Holocaust survivors who were left with nothing material, and were able to rebuild, and prosper, and overcome the torments they endured. But a steep price is still paid – sometimes for individuals, and even greater as a nation. Too many people who are beaten down become comfortable as victims and uncomfortable with power. For too long, we have competed in the arena of victimhood, and love even more the sympathy that is engendered by our suffering. There are plenty of Jews who are more comfortable with grief and mourning than with strength and the projection of power. Many proclaim at the seder “in every generation they come upon us to destroy us” as a badge of victimhood, and not as intended, in gratitude to G-d who has preserved us throughout history. We have built dozens of Holocaust memorials across the world, which certainly serve a purpose for us, but do not keep one Jew Jewish and certainly has done little to diminish the level of Jew-hatred in the world. We may think our victimhood is unique – and it is – but tell that to the Kurds or Armenians or Cambodians or Sudanese or Russians. These days, even Germans and Austrians claim to be victims of the Nazis. In this macabre competition, there are no winners.

The State of Israel was supposed to put an end to the glories of victimization – but it hasn’t entirely. The fact that the only innocent civilians in the world that are routinely targeted by random rockets are the Jews in Israel’s south – with little inclination to put a final end to it – only shows that victims talk it into themselves that victimhood is everlasting and unchangeable. The Iron Dome system, while a technological marvel that is mindboggling in its ingenuity and capacity, is the ultimate defensive system. Rather than disarm and permanently disable the shooter, it attempts to shoot a bullet out of the air with another bullet. Even if it succeeds most of the time – remarkable in itself – it fails as a stable strategy because the incoming rockets still require the ordinary citizen to cower in bomb shelters, lest a missile manage to sneak through. Thus, lives are still disrupted, children are still traumatized, and society is still terrorized. It is like a physician who treats the symptoms but not the disease.

It is hard to imagine another country putting up with similar attacks for as long as Israel has and is, because it is inconceivable. Ultimately, the hand of the shooter must be stayed, or the enemy will devise ways to defeat even the Iron Dome. And that will only energize the cult of victimization.

How are Moshiach and Eliyahu “elevated and revealed” at the seder? Not because they appear – they do not, and cannot, appear. But the seder begins with the original account of our victimization – “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”- but then we transcend it, celebrating “our redemption and the salvation of our souls,” our physical and spiritual liberation. That intends to point us away from bitterness and self-pity and towards redemption, gratitude, faith, independence, personal responsibility and the promises of the future. Moshiach and Eliyahu can only redeem a people that is proud and defiant – a people that are leaders not slaves, optimistic and not gloomy, self-confident and not timid. Moshiach and Eliyahu together reflect the zenith of our national life – and thus are “revealed” at the seder. We see ourselves not as victims anymore, but as G-d’s chosen people. We see ourselves as victims never again. That perception is itself redemption.

The joy and freedom that we experience on Pesach is the foretaste of the Messianic era, which calls to us out of the darkness and brings us into the light, that guides us from agony to happiness, from slavery to complete redemption, and to the moment when we will indeed greet Moshiach and Eliyahu in person, in the rebuilt Holy City of Yerushalayim, speedily and in our days.

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