The Hagaddah does a great job telling the story of the Israelite’s enslavement at the hands of the mighty Pharaoh. How with an outstretched arm and with signs and wonders, God redeemed us from captivity.
Many of us will reflect at our Seder tables about those who are victims of tyranny today at the hand of modern day Pharaohs: the Syrians at the hand of Assad, the Venezuelans at the hand of Nicolas Maduro, the children who labor illegally in the flower markets in Columbia and Ecuador, the degradation of human beings at the hands of human traffickers of all kinds, the oppression of women all over the world, the slow destruction of planet earth at the hand of humanity. There is no shortage of victims and violators.
If the Hagaddah reminds us of the tragedy of involuntary enslavement, the Rabbis of the Midrash chose to point out the sin of voluntary enslavement in this story. They argued that the book of Exodus tells about two enslaved peoples and concludes with the liberation of one of them and the destruction of the other. The only difference between the Israelites and the Egyptians was that the Egyptians chose to become enslaved to Pharaoh. “Why were the Egyptians compared to maror? To teach you that just as the maror, the beginning of which is soft while its end is hard, so were the Egyptians…” (Pesachim 39a). In other words, the Sages of the Midrash claimed that the Egyptians started out neutral but became complicit with their leader as the Exodus unfolds. Pharaoh’s xenophobia directed at the Israelites leads him to deploy his own people to do the dirty work of murdering and enslaving them. The Egyptians, say the rabbis, are guilty of self-enslavement because they followed their despotic leader. Any moral Egyptian had a choice to walk away from his fellow countrymen and from his leader and be on the right side of history. According to the Rabbis, some of them realized the error of their ways and did join the Israelites in exile. The ones who remained, however, even when they saw they were on the verge of ruin, became Pharaoh’s instruments once again in his last ditch effort to salvage his rule, giving chase to the Israelites and meeting their end in the angry sea.
We’d do well to consider the importance of the moral standard the rabbis establish in their Midrashic reading of the Exodus. It is always hard to stand up against the tide, to speak out when we see our people, our nation going astray. But the rabbis say the difficulty of the task does not dismiss us from undertaking it. We are not wholly responsible for everything that happens. But in those matters in which we can be voices and actors on the right side of history, we are challenged not to enslave ourselves to the Pharaohs out there and be followers of our better angels, a greater Leader, and a truer Truth.