(The piece below was originally a sample sermon I wrote for my first ordination, from Rabbinical Seminary International. In my file-copy, it’s dated April, 2008 – approximately 5 or 6 months before the economic collapse in Fall ’08. The sermon seems to me to be no less relevant today — 8 years later — an no less relevant to Pesach.)
I’ve sometimes heard people speak with pride about how many people attended their seder; how sumptuous it was; the number of courses served during the actual dinner portion of the evening, and so on. It seems ironic that a ritual commemorating our climactic moment as slaves is used to demonstrate prosperity. Who would ordinarily boast about what they learned at a seder? Who would mention in social discussion, weeks afterward, some way in which they were inspired by a seder to make a positive change in their life? Most cultures honor prosperity, however differently they go about it. Perhaps it indicates my own naivety, to expect it to be any other way.
The honor is meant as a sign that the prosperous person has competed successfully in the world. He or she is a “winner,” not a “loser.” Underneath, it says he or she can “survive,” not “perish.” The roar of a bear or a lion is certainly more impressive, more fearsome, than the bah-ing of sheep or the mewing of a housecat. We’re meant to be impressed certainly. Could there also be a subtle intent to intimidate, as if to say: “I’ll outdo anyone who competes with me. You can’t win”? It’s certainly not intentional or conscious. If it were, such people would most likely find themselves with no friends at all. But a message is nevertheless being given: “I’m the winner, here.”
One who makes such a demonstration simultaneously makes another. At precisely the moment that he seeks to impress you, he tells you: “Your opinion of me means more to me than my opinion of myself. In fact, my opinion of myself depends on your opinion of me. If you aren’t impressed, then I’m not impressive.”
There are at least 2 slaveries here, but I will focus on only one: slavery to “the law of the jungle.” “Kill or be killed; eat or be eaten.” We don’t live in a “jungle,” of course. We live in a world of business and commerce. We don’t compete for fresh game; we compete for profits. Yet, what rule do we follow in pursuit of them? “Anything goes.” “If I don’t do it, someone else will.” “If someone will buy it, why shouldn’t I sell it?” In our culture, I’ve often had the feeling that if two equally wealthy people were verbally competing for the “prize,” the one who made a fortune by showing disregard for people would be given greater honor than the one who made a fortune but showed concern and moral inhibition. Such would be in keeping with the “law of the jungle,” in which merciless self-assertion is demanded and required.
American business culture constantly strains against the “shackles” of morality and ethics. Yet, it shackles itself to a milieux of cutthroat competition, in which no one is to be trusted; no guard ever relaxed.
Freedom from such slavery would have to mean placing concern for others on at least the same level as concern for oneself. It would have to mean applying the same moral standards in business, as we do in personal relations. What is a business transaction, after all, but a temporary “personal relationship?” It would mean seeing business as a way to maintain society and culture, rather than to be exploitative of them. It might even mean – heaven forbid – placing concern for long-term social stability over concern for short-term profits. Even in the jungle, herbivores aren’t hunted to extinction by carnivores. American business has out-jungled the jungle.
How can we gain such freedom?
We could start by having a simple seder. At that seder, we could realize that our self-worth doesn’t depend on how many we’ve crushed in competitive commerce. It doesn’t depend on the amount of power we exercise over people – and especially doesn’t depend on how we might abuse that power.
It can start by realizing that we are “Israel,” not “pharaoh.”