Some of my most vivid memories from my time as a small child are from my family’s Passover Seders. I remember falling asleep to the sounds of my relatives debating the meaning of a biblical verse. I remember the first time I stayed awake for the entire procedure, triumphantly singing the strange children’s song that concludes the Seder as the clock struck 2:30 a.m. Even now, each year I return to school energized by the image of my family sitting around a long table clothed in white, our cups of wine raised in our right hands as we sing songs of God’s praise late into the night.
The central section of the Seder is the “maggid,” when the story of the Exodus — indeed much of Jewish history — is ritually retold. But the story is not just recounted; it is debated, analyzed and interpreted. And despite our annual return to the same texts, much is left eternally unresolved.
There is one such passage that I feel particularly unable to escape. We recite: “Blessed is the One who keeps His promise … that He did as he said to Abraham … ‘I surely know that your children will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will be enslaved and oppressed, but the nation whom they serve I shall surely judge.’”
Each year, we struggle with this passage. How can we praise God for his beneficence in letting us go free without blaming him for placing the Israelites in Egypt in the first place? After all, in this very passage we recall God’s foreknowledge of the Egyptian slavery.
And so we struggle. The texts of the Passover Seder ascribe our salvation to God but blame our enslavement on the Egyptians. Positive experiences are thus acts of divine grace, while evil is the product of human choice. Is that mindset justifiable, or is our tradition hypocritical and hopelessly naive?
Critics of religion smugly delight in pointing to alleged inconsistencies in the religious public’s worldview. But religion’s opponents’ need for a surface-level consistency is more a reflection of their small-mindedness, a surrender to their internal hobgoblins that understand little about the human soul.
Indeed, each year, I marvel appreciatively at this inconsistency that seems to undermine the entire Passover narrative. We attribute goodness to the eternal; evil, to ourselves. But is this not precisely the opposite of what our inner demons exhort us to do? There is nothing more comfortable — or more natural — than the desire to take credit for things that go well and pass the buck for actions that go south.
But the religious mind inverts that infantile paradigm. We praise God for the greatest moment in our history, and we berate ourselves for having remained in Egypt of our own will.
Nor is this didactic inversion limited to the Passover story. Any time a disaster befalls us, the Talmud demands that we examine our own deeds. And when we are saved, we are obligated to ritually give thanks.
In doing so, we try to rise above the emptiness of an existence bereft of responsibility. For those who understand that evil is human and goodness divine, there can be no sitting on one’s laurels. There is only introspection and hard work in the service of a better world.
It is always difficult to take responsibility for those things we do wrong. It’s simple for the Yale faculty to adopt a resolution lambasting a foreign country while patting themselves on the back for their tolerance; far harder to consider that the moral relativism bred by the American academy is precisely what gives cover to the administration’s acceptance of authoritarianism.
It’s simple for fraternities to absolve themselves of responsibility for partying- and rush-related problems; far harder to think critically about how to solve those problems. It’s simple for the Yale administration to sit satisfied in its support of freshmen and blame fraternities for unpleasant incidents; far harder to re-examine the woeful inadequacy of the moral education students are receiving.
It’s simple for the undergraduate community to sit confident in the knowledge that its Class Day speaker is named Barbara and consider misogyny a thing of the past; far harder to consider why society seems to elevate so many more men than women to positions of prominence. And it’s simple to file a legal complaint against a well-meaning Yale administration; far harder to think critically about how our own supposedly liberated sexual norms might be at fault.
So as we leave this holiday season, perhaps believer and atheist alike might take a page from the Haggadah. Reflect on how you have contributed to society’s troubles, and give thanks for all that we have been given. And by doing so, we might yet come to live in a world where songs of gratitude sweep away the sources of our critical reflection.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.