Many versions of the Haggadah “guidebook” for the Passover seder ritual repeatedly refer to matzah as the “bread of affliction,” citing Deuteronomy 16:3. We Jews eat this unleavened bread during the ritual and throughout the ensuing week to remember ancestral slavery. Then we stop.
One reason we stop is that the “bread of affliction” isn’t designed to be tasty. The modern commercial version of it is flat and dry. Unless you’re carb-deficient or salivating mightily, it can seem like an effort to eat it. Of course, some aficionados of crackers will disagree with me. I even found uncertified matzah at a Cold Storage supermarket in Malaysia.
The seder ritual is not only a remembrance but also a celebration of freedom that was achieved. The ritual repeatedly states that each participant should feel as if he or she was personally liberated from past servitude—what we moderns would call “owning” the event. This is emphasized with an explicit reminder that if our ancestors had not been liberated, then we would still be trapped in servitude.
But we’re not slaves anymore. The seder is a ritual of gratitude, not victimhood.
Centuries of commentaries on the Book of Exodus contain various threads. About 900 years ago, Abraham Ibn Ezra of northern Spain posed the question: “If the Hebrews vastly outnumbered the pursuing Egyptians at the Red Sea, why did they panic about being slaughtered?” Ibn Ezra’s conclusion was that these ancestral Jews had a “slave mentality” that deferred to authority to provide the necessities of life: as slaves, the Hebrews had been fed by their masters and developed what some modern writers call “learned helplessness.” This meant not only submissiveness toward the dynastic central government of the pharaohs but also a lack of initiative to become self-sufficient when freed.
Continuing this line of reasoning, Ibn Ezra explained that 40 years of wandering in the wilderness was necessary so that most of the older generation who retained the “slave mentality” would die out. No longer bound by the mindset of their ancestors, the younger generation would be capable of autonomy and begin thinking for themselves. They would focus on the freedom of the future instead of dwelling on the slavery of the past.
A modern commentator, Alanna Apfel, sees the notion of wilderness as a transformative process for individuals. In her essay, “Letting Go of Our Inner Wilderness Generation,” published in the Jewish Journal shortly before Passover in 2021, she advised replacing the self-concept of victim with one of autonomy: “We each hold identities and beliefs that inhibit us from making lasting change.”
In recent years, our politics has become cluttered by instinctive tribalism, expressed in memes such as “When in doubt, I trust someone who looks/talks/acts the way I do,” or “No one outside my in-group can begin to comprehend my suffering.” Even more insidious is a kind of historical revisionism that functions like a black hole: “All of history revolves around my identity group.”
This narrow-mindedness is literally childish. If you ask a child, “Who is the best mommy in the whole world?” she or he will (ideally) answer “My mommy.” Such a subjective stance is typically shed when a child matures into adulthood. However, it can be revived by fanatics of religion (“My religion is the only valid one”) or politics (“My political party is the only right one, and those who follow another one are just wrong”).
Somehow it has become popular to accept this level of subjectivity as untouchable, though common sense tells us that it is no more substantial than any other point of view. A subjective idea is unchallengeable only because it is not falsifiable.
Every identity group has had a sad episode in its history, which can stir feelings of outrage and moralizing fervor if one dwells on it day after day. Let’s constrain the dry flavor of the past to a remembrance rather than exalt it as a guiding light. We should feel grateful for the lushness of the present and move forward together.