Passover Psychology

8 May

(Crossposted on Dovbear)

The Pesach story is one of those parts of the Torah that makes me think that God was involved. Not because of the tales of supernatural events. Rather, it is the masterful, realistic portrayal of human nature in these verses that causes me to take the story seriously.

The Pesach story deals with a theme that is central to what is known in pop psychology as self-actualization. It is this lesson that the Gemara says we are supposed to take out of retelling the Pesach story on the Seder nights. How exactly do we do this? By “Starting with saying the bad, and ending with saying the good”. The Amora ‘Rav’ says this means starting the story by telling over our idolatrous beginnings and ending with God introducing us to monotheism. ‘Shmuel’ says it’s done by starting with our slavery to Pharaoh and ending with our miraculous freedom. The Haggadah does both of these.

Unfortunately, the Haggadah and it’s myriad pshatim seem to confuse the crap out of many people because it’s central theme is not laid out. Is that done purposely, as part of the “And when your child shall ask you” motif? Possibly. Who knows? What I would like to do though, is look at the Pesach story as a story of attaining ‘mental freedom’, and tie this into understanding “Starting with the bad…” and the opinions of Rav and Shmuel.

There is a problem with being physical. That problem is survival. We can only survive by consuming physical resources. However, there are many other people who need to survive using those same resources. This is what causes physical beings to compete with one another. If you don’t fight, you’re dead. However, in a totally competitive universe, religion can become pathological. Praying to different forces to gain a competitive edge, currying favors through any means possible. Unbridled competition, historically, also lead to slavery.

The effects of slavery are similar to those of physical and sexual abuse. It is the ultimate form of invasion, barring murder. The psychological effects are devastating and nearly impossible to recover from. The Jews in Egypt tried to hold out a small resistance to it. They held onto their Hebrew names, dress and speech, to whatever extent was possible. They were a stiff-necked people after all. But when push came to shove, they had given up on hope. Moshe was told to get lost. And even after a miraculous exodus, when they were confronted with the news of Pharaoh chasing them, they reacted by giving up and making cynical comments to Moshe (Ex. 14:11-12). They *knew* they would lose to Pharaoh. They were untermenchen.

But weren’t they right? After all, they were in no position to fight Pharaoh. Well- God knew that. And He didn’t get angry with the Jews for complaining then. Yes, He had shown them that he ruled all elements and that they had no earthly or heavenly being to fear, but Him. Yes, showed them that they were worthwhile human beings, special, cared about, chosen by God, one nation from the midst of another. And they even trusted in God enough, during the plagues, to sacrifice their masters’ diety and put the blood on display. But two hundred years of being shat on isn’t erased with a few weeks of therapy. When God wasn’t holding their hand while they faced insecurity, they reacted with their ingrained slave-mode of behavior. When the invisible superpower finally stopped showing His hand, the face of Pharaoh was still as visible as it had always been.

There did remain something, though. They had seen enough to know that Moshe could face up to Pharaoh. And Moshe was still there with them, the faithful shepherd, as always. So when he prayed to God at the sea, God told him (Exodus 14:15): “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the children of Israel, and they’ll travel.” Rashi quotes the Mechilta, that the merit of the Patriarchs and Israel’s faith in God to leave Egypt was enough split the sea for them. God knew that they had to take small, guided steps at first.

And we see in the desert that the big sins that they were tested with were always ones of faith: Moshe leaving them at Mt. Sinai, them sending spies to test out if the land was dangerous, no water at various places, surviving on seemingly unsubstantial food. They, understandably, had tremendous ‘trust issues’ that God was trying to work them through in order to transform them into self-actualized, people. The 40 year long therapy was designed to replace their reliance on human beings for support, with God. (This is probably why Moshe had to be the most humble of all men, so that he didn’t take advantage of the situation and become the cult leader that they were dying for him to be.)

This would eliminate the need for their natural physical competition. Abraham famously asked God, (Gen. 15:8) How will I know (that your promise will come true)? Abraham, the rational monotheist, tried to make a deal with God! And since he needed it, God made it. But he also designed the ‘melting pot’ of Egypt then (15:13) to rid the Abrahamaic line of the natural competitive, idolatrous nature in their blood.

And they did have a moment of unity- the result of replacing competition with reliance on God- when they arrived at Sinai. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and besides for a few individuals, they were too scared, or unready, to let the therapy take full effect. Their children, however, were rehabilitated enough to take on conquering the land of Israel! (That’s high marks for Dr. God in my opinion.)

And that’s the lesson of Pesach, as I understand it. To erase the physicality of competition and replace it with the spirituality of faith. And even though we don’t have God holding our hand today, the Haggadah tells us to role-play going through the pain of slavery, and the relief and exultation of the Exodus. This therapeutic technique (done in a group setting, by the way) is designed to help us actualize our spiritual self, which is, after all, the point of the whole exercise of existence according to Judaism.

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3 Responses to “Passover Psychology”

  1. itchemeyer April 1, 2012 at 11:17 pm #

    Reblogged this on yeshivaforum and commented:

    Here’s a post I did last year for Pesach. Back when I used to still write divrei torah sometimes. I can’t see myself writing something like this now, but since a total of 3 people probably saw this when I first posted it, and I put some effort into it, I’ll repost it here. If you like it, awesome.

  2. bestbathroombooks April 3, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    Read the whole thing. My parents are too old this year to have the family Seder. I don’t know if they’ll come over here.
    Life goes on.
    Good writing.

    • itchemeyer April 3, 2012 at 2:45 am #

      Les, I had no idea you were Jewish. Well, have a nice pesach. And glad you liked the piece.
      I’m not feeling that into it this year. Maybe things will change next year.

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