February 22, 2020

At seder, don’t bite the hand that serves

At your seder, you just might be the Egyptian.

Consider what it means to be an Israelite and an Egyptian in the Passover story. The Israelites have no power and are at the whim of those they serve. And what about the Egyptians? They have all the power, but their morality is tested by how they treat the Israelites in their midst. The Israelites are slaves — the Egyptians control their lives and behavior and direct their choices.  

In many Jewish homes at Passover seder, the meal will be served by non-Jews who are there to help. Of course, they are not slaves, but they are subject to the desires, directives and the treatment of those who are in “power” — those who pay them, determine their work and who choose how to speak to them. We have been embarrassed at times by the way some people treat those who work for them. How often have you seen people be unkind to the very people who feed them, clean their homes, even take care of their children? In such a case, who is the Israelite and who is the Egyptian?

When confronted, the normal excuse for such mistreatment is to say, “But I’m paying them.” So we should be clear — no amount of money entitles one to be a jerk. Such behavior is not a monetary but a human decision. Thoughtlessly injuring another is an aveirah, a transgression.  This does not diminish as income rises. 

Who has not been at restaurants where the server, working hard and trying her or his best, is treated shamefully by the patron?  Such behavior is not only wrong but profoundly un-Jewish.  

Recall the story of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter who observed his students wash their hands with copious amounts of water before a meal to demonstrate their piety. When he used a very small amount and was asked why, he explained that he was thinking of the servant who had to go fetch the water from the well, and whose work was made harder by their extravagance. 

All of us have the urge to edit the tradition to suit our preferences. But anyone who reads the prophets and the rabbinic tradition that follows knows that a special burden to goodness falls upon us when dealing with those who work for us or who are poor.  When Amos thunders at the people that they “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” he goes on to ask, in God’s name, “Shall not the earth tremble for this?” (Amos 8:6,8.) No amount of Pesach cleaning will wipe away the stain of abusing someone in your service.  

In addition to the demands of simple humanity, there is an element of self-interest.  I am more careful to be nice when I am wearing a kippah in public. I try not to do anything that would discredit Jews, like get angry or act ungenerously. People who work in Jewish homes or serve at Jewish functions observe the behavior of those whom they help, so it is especially gratifying to hear positive comments, as I often do, about how well people are treated at Jewish institutions or how welcome they feel in Jewish homes. And it is just as painful to hear the opposite.  Communal pride in our tradition and our people should lead us to be particularly careful about being kind to those who work for us.

Most of the people who work at synagogues and Jewish institutions are treated well and speak kindly of their employers. Most of the homes I have visited and the people with whom I interact are, in fact, very solicitous of those who help them. I know of Jewish families that have supported others for citizenship and paid for schooling for their housekeepers’ children, or who donate clothes and other items to their employees. Such actions are befitting the rabbinic description of Israel as a “compassionate people and the children of compassionate people.”

In the Torah, midwives Shifrah and Puah are singled out as heroes. Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, is deputized to find a wife for Isaac. In Chasidic stories, Elijah would often appear as a wagon driver or even a beggar. Judaism is filled with images of people whose lives are in service and whose souls are exalted. 

Family functions are often fraught. Emotions can run high at holiday time, and nerves are often on edge. There is a temptation to strike out at the people who cannot strike back. And I’m sure Egyptians, when they gave Israelites an extra slap, made excuses similar to those you hear today: “Ach, I’ve had a really tough day.” But of course there is never an adequate excuse for mistreating someone who is subject to your wishes.  

Jews know better than to confuse power with dignity. In our long history, many people have had power over us, but far fewer have borne themselves with dignity. The prophets sought to teach us that we cannot escape responsibility for our own actions toward any other human being.  There is no gradation in being an image of God; the Torah begins with Adam, not Abraham. All human beings are equally God’s children — the one who serves the soup no less than the one who asks the Four Questions.

The seder is a time to teach our children.  As all parents know, what we teach our children comes from our actions more than from our words. If we talk about the deliverance and goodness of God and how we were saved from being under the power of others, then turn to yell at someone who works for us, or keep them until late hours without extra pay, or do not thank and acknowledge them as if they were invisible, our children will see it. They will learn that it is OK to victimize others if we pay them, or if they have no recourse. That is not the lesson of Passover, or what we need to teach our children, the scions of our good fortune. 

This lesson is not limited to Passover, of course. It is equally applicable at the carwash and the supermarket, the hair salon and the restaurant.  At a bookstore with a friend a few weeks ago, a salesperson complained to me that some customers yell at him for charging 10 cents for a paper bag, which is the law and not even a bookstore policy. He thanked us for understanding and being nice about it. I felt good, and not only because my friend and I were both wearing kippot. 

Although kindness matters in every situation, there is a special mandate on Passover, when we celebrate our freedom and understand the peril of being in another’s power. “Let all who are hungry come and eat” sounds ironic if the person who is serving you has not eaten. 

So please, this Passover, when you are in the position of an Egyptian, remember to act like an Israelite. If Elijah does come, he will be proud of you.

Rabbi David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood.