Wednesday, April 8, 2009

As If He Exited from Egypt - from the files of Mark Twain

There is no use in stringing out the details. The earl put us up and sold us at auction. This same infernal law had existed in our own South in my own time, more than thirteen hundred years later, and under it hundreds of freemen who could not prove that they were freemen had been sold into lifelong slavery without the circumstance making any particular impression upon me; but the minute law and the auction block came into my personal experience, a thing which had been merely improper before became suddenly hellish. Well, that's the way we are made.

-From A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
Twain so aptly outlines one of the most critical aspects of the Seder night, found at the beginning of Maggid: חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממרים - a person must view himself as if he actually had left Egypt. At the Seder, instead of telling a story, we must live it. We must envision ourselves as slaves, suffering under the oppressive Egyptian regime. Only then can we appreciate the salvation and redemption that God brought to us through the Exodus.
I think that today especially, we face a particular challenge in this aspect of the Hagadah. Sure, we can tell the story. We can write plays, read commentaries, sit like kings and eat the bread of affliction. But I don't think we can appreciate what it means to be a slave.
Intellectually we can contemplate being owned by another human being. We've all heard the stories of indifference and cruelty inherent to slavery. But those are really technical aspects of slavery. What we cannot and hopefully will never be able to appreciate is the mentality of slavery; the belief of the slave that his life truly is worth less than his master's; that he somehow does represent a lower form of existence, best utilized in the servitude of another.
In "A Connecticut Yankee", the author decides to venture out into England with the king incognito, looking for adventure. Yet, as well as he physically disguises the king in hair and dress, the king still acts like a king. So he must teach Arthur otherwise.
"Sire, as between clothes and countenance, you are all right, there is no discrepancy; but as between your clothes and your bearing, you are all wrong, there is a most noticeable discrepancy. Your soldierly stride, your lordly port—these will not do. You stand too straight, your looks are too high, too confident. The cares of a kingdom do not stoop the shoulders, they do not droop the chin, they do not depress the high level of the eye-glance, they do not put doubt and fear in the heart and hang out the signs of them in slouching body and unsure step. It is the sordid cares of the lowly born that do these things. You must learn the trick; you must imitate the trademarks of poverty, misery, oppression, insult, and the other several and common inhumanities that sap the manliness out of a man and make him a loyal and proper and approved subject and a satisfaction to his masters, or the very infants will know you for better than your disguise, and we shall go to pieces at the first hut we stop at. Pray try to walk like this."
Slavery and subjugation are first and foremost mentalities. Today, blessed with generations of democracy and equality, we bow before no one. Even when meeting the most powerful man in the world, we don't lower our heads. No, we extend our hand to him to shake as an equal. Even the thought of bowing to the president of the United States seems laughable.
But imagine for a moment that if you walked by not a president - but someone higher up the food chain than you - and didn't lower your head in submission, he might take out a knife and stab you, just for having looked at him in the wrong way. Imagine having your home, possessions, property - even children subject to the whims of the lord of your manor or your owner. You had no say, no voice - and you knew that nothing would ever change, and that you would eventually die the same way you were born - in slavery.
On the night of the Seder, we must first accept the mentality of slavery.
Only then can we begin to appreciate the blessings of freedom that God has given each of us..