Of Slavery, Idolatry and Freedom: Environmentally Inspired Thoughts on Themes of Pesach

Dr. Jeremy Benstein

The most obvious connection between Pesach and environmental ideas is the agricultural/ seasonal one: it is Chag He’aviv, the festival of Spring, which symbolizes freedom and renewal, for us, as well as for the world around us. More politically, there are those who “midrashically” expand on the idea of the ten plagues to speak of ills we have brought upon ourselves, and challenges that face us.

I’d like to explore a different theme, one of the main ones of the Hagadah, and what it has to say to—and about—us and our society today. The rabbis, who composed the Hagadah text and the seder ceremony, determined that the telling of the story of our freedom, should begin with the initial degraded condition of the Jewish people, and conclude with our praiseworthy, redeemed status: the principle of מתחיל בגנות, מסיים בשבח – to begin with condemnation and end with commendation.

That much is agreed upon—but from there ensues an argument as to what specifically are those situations. One position is of course that “once we were slaves, and now we are free”—the story of the great transition from slavery to freedom. But another view has it that the original wretched status of the Jews was that our ancestors were idolaters, and they were raised up into a position of faith, worshipping “the one true God.” Two concepts of “lowly” origins are essentially two framings of Jewish history: one emphasizing the political/ historical dimension, the other the religious/spiritual side.

On the one hand, these two historic events or processes appear unrelated. One, slavery is a social situation of oppression of one group of people by another; while idolatry is a theological error, of deification of an object or force in place of God. One is political, even economic, the other is spiritual, an internal matter of belief.

But not only are they not unrelated, they are in fact mirror images of one another, and even complement one another. Slavery – in any of its forms, ancient as well as modern (and let us not fool ourselves – there are more slaves now than ever before in human history, and not metaphorically speaking) – slavery in essence is taking a human being, who is meant to be an end to him- or herself, and making of that person a means, a tool, subjugated to the gratification of another.

Idolatry, on the other hand, is taking something that is a part of the whole, a means in the greater scheme – money, power, my ego, natural forces – and turning it into an ends, a totality to be worshiped, to take the place of the Transcendent source of goodness and value.

In the end they both involve subjugations of sorts. Slavery is “external” – that is bein adam lechavero, between people and their fellows, what we do to others. And while I don’t want to denigrate real world slavery, I do want to make sure we don’t “pass over” other forms of degradation and oppression that are forms of subjugation: whether it be “wage slavery” and how we treat those who work for us or with us, or even just the creeping numbness of “I-It” relationships and our forgetting the basic humanity of all the many nameless or faceless people with whom we come into contact in our daily lives, and whom we only see as means to the fulfillment of our needs and wants.

The idolatry side may be more subtle. It is an internal subjugation of sorts, in our desire for comfort, or success or impact on the world – how we pursue false ideals, or serve false gods, or make material means – such as wealth and its pursuit – into some sort of spiritual end in itself. And it includes all the little things that seduce us and that we get addicted to along the way – all those things that internally “enslave” us and are so hard to liberate ourselves from.

Consumer culture, or consumerism—the culture and ideology we’ve created around our consumption practices—is idolatrous in this sense. As organisms, we all need to consume things in order to survive. And that’s a good thing. But when we take that means, the need to consume for the sake of achieving higher ends, and make it an end in itself, a force that shapes our lives, a goal that we serve and not the other way around—we pay a high price, both materially and spiritually.

And to the extent that there seem to be forces in our society beyond our control—economic forces in the worlds of finance and globalization, for instance—that often we seem to be enslaved to, forces that serve narrow vested interests instead of the greater public good—how can we say we are truly free?

Let’s not forget the natural world. As Heschel wrote: “I am an end as well as a means, and so is the world: an end as well as a means…The complete manipulation of the world results in the complete instrumentalization of the self…Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you.” (A.J. Heschel, Who Is Man? 1965). We are witness to the reality-in-crisis we ourselves have created, when we treat the vast complexity that is the natural world as storehouse of raw materials for our physical needs and wants, and lose the ability to wonder at the processes that called us into existence.

Mistaking mere means for ends in themselves, or true ends for means to other goals, or a small piece of reality for the whole of existence, are categorical “sins” that prevent us from fulfilling our social and spiritual human potential. The holiday of Pesach, with its many questions, is designed to get us to think about that potential, about not only achieving freedom, but using it for the good of all, and of the world of which we are but a part.

May your charoset be sweet, your maror be pungent, and your matzot nourish body and soul! Chag sameach!