“The Slave Mentality
(updated and revised from Bo 5761–2001)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Bo, concludes the Torah’s narrative of parashat Va’eira, of the ten plagues, by recounting the final three plagues, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborn.

Unexpectedly, the dramatic description of the final plague, the death of the firstborn, is suddenly interrupted with Exodus 12, a chapter that 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 additional 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, toward the Red Sea, in anticipation of the great miracle of the splitting of that body of water.

The first four parshiot 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 Rashi (Exodus 15:2), cites our sages in the Mechilta, who say, רָאֲתָה שִׁפְחָה עַל הַיָּם מַה שֶּׁלֹּא רָאוּ נְבִיאִים , 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 their faith and began to cry at the Red Sea. Even after their miraculous rescue, and receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, the people turned on G-d and worshiped the golden calf. Despite seeing miracle after miracle, the Israelites were unable to maintain even a modicum of faith in G-d. So bad would it become, that eventually, after the sin of the 10 scouts who return from Canaan with an evil report, it was decreed from Heaven that the generation that left Egypt would not be permitted to enter the Promised Land, and were fated to perish in the wilderness.

A story is told of four women, doctors’ wives from York, Pennsylvania, who came to New York City in the early 1990s, on a shopping spree. Of course, this was when New York City was crime-ridden and the city’s reputation weighed heavily on them

They checked into the luxurious Plaza Hotel. The night before their first shopping expedition, they were fretful. Out of fear, they bolted the door to their room, and propped up a chair against the doorknob to make certain that they were secure. They tossed and turned the entire night in dread anticipation of what lay in wait 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 big tall man with a large white dog. The big man said, “Sit, Whitie,” and the four women proceeded to sit down on the floor!

This is perhaps what is meant by the statement uttered by the 10 scouts upon their return from scouting out Canaan, (Numbers 13:33): וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם , 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 feelings of inadequacy that it was broadcast to all the inhabitants of Canaan.

This is also an accurate 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 to feel otherwise. They lived and breathed in perpetual fear. That mentality, so deeply ingrained, was impossible to overcome.

G-d tried to help encourage them, to work with them, to support them, but their attitudes 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 habits and patterns of 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, positive and joyous Torah-saturated environment, so that our children, the next generation, at least have a chance to live meaningful lives.

Slave mentalities are not only born in slavery, they can also be born in abundance. Torah, good deeds and positive joyous Jewish experiences are the antidote.

May you be blessed.