Every culture has etiological myths, foundational stories that relate the origins of the people in question. Those stories — which generally have a supernatural dimension — are not merely explanatory, but convey something essential about how that group sees itself.
Ancient Romans, for example, prided themselves in descending from the Aeneas the Trojan. Aeneas, a mythical hero, descended from both princes and gods and was related to king Priamos. Not bad for “yichus”, as my grandmother would say. But Romans were far from alone in claiming such august lineage. Cretans, for example, believed that Apollo himself, disguised as a dolphin (hence the Delphi oracle) had sent them onto the sea to be his priests. The Incas claimed that Manco Capac, the founder of their dynasty, descended directly from Inti, the sun god.
What were the Romans saying about themselves when they claimed to descend from heroes and gods? What does that imply about their role in the world? How does it inform their relations with others? Etiological myths have often been used to claim superiority over others, to justify conquest and subjugation. The Incas, for example, used their divine ancestry to justify keeping the “huacas” — peoples of Peru and Bolivia — as vassals.
The Exodus is our most significant etiological myth, and one can’t but wonder what kind of PR firm the ancient Israelites hired. Think about it: not only are we not the children of gods and kings, but we proudly claim to descend from a ragtag bunch of rowdy slaves. We are the only people of antiquity that makes the self-deprecating claim of descending from the lowest ranks of society.
But before we demand to fire the biblical marketing department, let’s try to analyze what our foundational story aspires to create. Historian Mircea Eliade said that “nearly ever sacred story describes events that established a new paradigm for human behavior”. So what is the Exodus trying to model? What does it teach about humanity, and about the role of the Jewish people in the world? If the descendants of Aeneas felt entitled, commanded even, to conquer the known world, what is the task of the offspring of slaves?
The Bible not only tells us that we descend from slaves, but reinforces our undistinguished ancestry time and again. The reminder that “you yourselves were slaves in the land of Egypt” appears five times in Deuteronomy alone, a context (Moses’ speech to the younger generations) which makes it clear that Jewish slavery is to be remembered forever. Most notably this week, we are commanded to reenact our slavery every year at the Seder, eating the “bread of affliction” and the bitter herbs of slavery.
The Bible says that the experience of slavery is not just a historical accident; it impacts the very essence of who we are as a people. It is, as computer programmers would say, a feature and not a bug. The experience of slavery becomes the underpinning of our moral outlook. “Do not wrong or oppress the stranger; for you yourselves were once strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21). We know what it feels to be a stranger; we know the suffering of slavery, so we can, more than the offspring of gods, empathize with those that suffer and therefore act with righteousness and justice.
Many generations removed from slavery, it’s as if we were forced into a game of “role reversal”, that psychodrama technique in which you put yourself in the shoes of somebody else. Even in the midst of freedom, we need to feel what the oppressed feel; even in the midst of affluence, we need to taste the bitterness of slavery and poverty. It is as if G-d entrusts us with his ethical commandments because we were slaves and strangers. We had to experience slavery and oppression before entering the Promised Land, because the society and state that we build for ourselves needs to have that moral backbone that comes from being empathetic to those who suffer. Because the ultimate litmus test of any society, implies the Exodus, is how it treats the vulnerable, the powerless, and the stranger. Because we were slaves we know that right needs to be stronger than might.
Maybe the decline of empathy is the source of many world problems today. We became locked into our ideas and we lost the capacity to put ourselves in other people’s places and see the world from their perspectives. During the last JFN conference we discussed at length the issue of polarization in America, Israel, and the Jewish community. A possible cure for extremism and polarization is to trade radicalization for radical empathy. In his book, How to Cure a Fanatic, Amos Oz mentions the “lack of imagination” as one of the causes of fanaticism. He’s right: if we have enough imagination to feel like “the other” does, we can never be fanatics. Judaism forces us into that exercise every year when it commands us to relive slavery and put ourselves in the place of the weakest members of our society.
What applies to the Jewish people as a whole applies also to funders. Philanthropy can only be effective and ethical when we force ourselves to go through “role reversal”. If we never do, the gap between our experience and that of our grantees is too big, too difficult to bridge. We are affluent, but we need to feel the plight of those less fortunate; we are free, but we need to understand what the oppressed feel; we may have strong ideas about Jewish identity, but we need to accept that others may see Judaism in a different light; we are grant makers, but we need to be conscious of how things look through the eyes of the grantee. We can only do good philanthropy from a place of true empathy with the folks we are trying to help.
We should also be warned: the distance between remembering our suffering and feeling perpetually victimized is short. Moses himself warns us about that slippery slope when he tells us to forgo revenge, and even vengeful emotion: “Do not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” (Deut 23:8). If you hate, you are still captive, you are still caught in your past. Instead, we are enjoined, we must use suffering as a way of transforming the future, of taking responsibility for creating a society that will stand for the values that Egypt sought to deny. Never fall into victimization, never ask, “Who did this to me?” but rather “What shall I do to make it right for me and for others?” Jews, the most persecuted people in the history of humanity, never let our moral essence be defined down to feeling victimized. Rather, we built an ethic of responsibility, one that responds to tragedy with a profound dignity and the renewed impetus to do — and be — better.
Dear friends, when we reenact our slavery and our liberation at the Seder table, let’s commit anew to radical empathy, to understanding those who suffer, to taking responsibility for creating — through our philanthropy and through our lives — a world that is a testament to the values we learned in our millennia-long history of suffering and resilience. Let’s celebrate who we are, for we are not the children of gods and kings, but of those humble slaves who transformed their affliction into a narrative of justice, freedom, and hope. Let’s follow the moral imperative that is more than three thousand years old, but relevant as ever: “Proclaim freedom throughout the land” (Lev 25:10).