“The Slave Mentality”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Bo, concludes the narrative of the ten plagues by recounting the final three plagues, locusts, darkness and death of the first-born. The description of the final plague, the death of the first-born, is suddenly interrupted with chapter 12, which speaks of the sanctification of the month of Nissan, the Pascal offering, and the ritual of the seder as it was observed in Egypt, together with some general laws of the Passover festival.

The sanctification of the month of Nissan, is the first collective mitzvah of the People of Israel and effectively marks the Jewish people’s coming-of-age as a nation. Parashat Bo reaches its crescendo as the Jews begin the march from Ramses to Succoth, 600,000 men on foot, aside from women and children, towards the Red Sea and the great miracle of the splitting of that body of water.

The first four parashiot of the Book of Exodus: Shemot, Va’eira, Bo and B’shalach, all describe G-d’s spectacular intervention with nature on behalf of his beloved People of Israel. It’s no wonder that our sages in the Mechilta (the legendary commentary) on parashat B’shalach, say, “Sheh’ra’a’tah shif’cha al ha’yam, mah sheh’lo ra’ah y’chez’kel v’chol sh’ar ha’n’veim,” that, “A simple maidservant at the Red Sea, saw greater revelation than even the prophet Ezekiel and all the greatest prophets were destined to see.” Aside from Sinai, this was G-d’s revelation at its most intense.

If G-d was so close and so palpable, how then was it possible for the Jewish people to lose faith so quickly? Despite the constant display of G-d’s omnipotence in Egypt, the people lost faith. They lacked faith and began to cry at the Red Sea, and even after their miraculous rescue, they turned on G-d and worshiped the golden calf. Despite seeing miracle after miracle, the people were still unable to maintain even a modicum of faith in G-d. And so it was eventually, that after the sin of the 10 scouts who return from Canaan with an evil report, that it was decreed from Heaven that the generation that left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, and would perish in the wilderness.

A true story is told about four women, doctors’ wives from York, Pennsylvania, who came to New York City on a shopping spree. Of course, this was before Giuliani made the city safe, and their perception of a crime ridden New York instilled great fear in them. They checked into the luxurious Plaza Hotel. The night before their first shopping expedition they were quite desperate. Out of fear they bolted the door to their rooms, and propped up a chair against the door handle to make certain that they were secure. They tossed and turned a whole night in dread anticipation of what lay in store for them the next day. When they awoke in the morning and prepared to go down to the lobby for breakfast, they were literally petrified, and needed to gather courage just to open the door. They listened through the door, and when they heard that it was quiet they tiptoed down the corridor and pressed the elevator button. The elevator arrived, the doors opened and standing in the elevator was a huge, black man with a giant white dog. The black man said, “Sit, Whitie,” and the four women proceeded to sit down on the floor!

This is perhaps what is meant by the statement of the 10 scouts who return from Canaan, (Numbers 13:33): “Vaneh’hi v’ay’nei’nu ka’cha’gah’vim, v’chein ha’yinu b’ay’nei’hem,” We were in our own eyes as grasshoppers–as pigmies, and so we were in their eyes. The spies who went to Israel had such an inferiority complex that it was easily broadcast to all the inhabitants of Canaan.

This, in effect, is also a true description of the generation of Egypt. Those Hebrews who were brought up in Egyptian slavery for 110 years were unable to disassociate themselves from their slave mentality. No miracles could persuade them otherwise. They lived and breathed in dread fear. That mentality was deeply ingrained, and was impossible to overcome.

G-d tried to help and encourage them, to work with them, to support them, but their dispositions just could not be changed. No matter how great the miracle, no matter how wondrous the sight, they remained intimidated. Eventually, it was necessary for G-d to determine that this generation could not enter Israel, and would be replaced with a more appropriate generation that was born in freedom.

Clearly, the patterns of our youth are very difficult to break. That is why it is so important that we spare no effort to raise our children in a healthy, conducive, Torah-saturated environment, so that we give our children, our next generation, at least a chance to live meaningful lives. Slave mentalities are not only born in slavery, they can also be born in abundance. Torah and good deeds are the antidote.

May you be blessed.