By Lauren Hamburger:
There’s nothing like a drama when the odds are stacked against the heroes and success seems impossible. It’s reassuring in the movies – there’s a good chance things will work out ok for our protagonist even if the quality of movie may suffer in the process.
We’re reminded of such unlikely survival stories on seder night, when we read the dramatic birth of the Jewish people. It all begins at the start of Sefer Shemot when the Torah brutally sets the scene:
A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know about Joseph.
The new Pharaoh was not a friend of the Israelites, and forced them to work as slaves. The text goes on to say how he felt threatened by their numbers and strength. As such, in addition to hard labour, he also decreed that Jewish male babies were to be killed.
The plot gets juicy as we see a whole chain of events dictating that not only was Moshe not meant to have been born, he shouldn’t have survived. Thanks to Shifrah and Puah, the midwives, Moshe survives birth. Batya, the Egyptian princess finds him and thanks to his sister Miriam’s wisdom, he is rescued and looked after by his mother. The odds were stacked against him and yet he goes on to become a superhero, just like in the much loved Dreamworks feature film, the singing and dancing Prince of Egypt.
But why have an outsider lead the nation? Someone who wasn’t even meant to be born, yet ends up centre stage? Why all the drama? Why not have the people collectively discover Gd and their freedom when it was a little easier? When Yoseph was viceroy, for example?
One idea is that everyone has challenges they have to overcome, including Moshe, our archetypical leader. The story gives him a difficult start, and later we learn from Rashi that when Moshe says, “kaved peh, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue”, he is implying that he has a stammer.
Making the impossible, possible
This story isn’t only about the birth of one man. If it were then why bother reading it on Seder night? The story is about the birth of a nation, and for a nation to survive it needs two things: history and hope.
The Jewish people are repeatedly on the verge of destruction. A nomadic tribe who move from country to country, work hard, rise up and then are forced to leave again. It happened thousands of years ago, it happened 70 years ago. More than finding a leader to save the Israelites, they need the ‘super-power’ of self-belief to survive in the long-term.
Robert Rosenthal was born in Germany in 1933 but moved to the United States as a Holocaust refugee. He went on to become a distinguished professor of Psychology and is known for the Rosenthal-Jacobson study called the Pygmalion effect. Rosenthal carried out an experiment at California Elementary School disguising pupils’ IQ. Teachers were told a random 20% of their students were expected to be intellectual bloomers. The students showed statistically significant gains favoring the experimental group of ‘intellectual bloomers’. This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations, particularly for the youngest children, can influence student achievement. The Pygmalion effect demonstrates the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.
As individuals, knowing we are part of a community that has faced and overcome them empowers us to feel that we can make change happen in the future. We are part of a people whose history shows there have been dark times but the Jewish people have survived and fought back – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Seder night invites Jewish families and friends to come together from across the religious spectrum to retell our birth story. The Exodus marks the turning point from slavery to freedom. We tell the story of a people who were at rock bottom but became free, making the impossible, possible, against all odds.
The importance of knowing where we come from, coupled with the power of hope and self-belief is what pushes the Jewish people to carry on generation after generation. On seder night Jews around the world are still collectively reading about their ancestors’ exodus ‘as if it were their own’ and end their evening singing with hope, l’shana habah Yerushalim – next year in Jerusalem.
Lauren Hamburger is Director of PJ Library in the UK, responsible for the organisation’s strategy and infrastructure. Outside of the office, Lauren works with different organisations to expand opportunities for women in Judaism. She is a current student on the Bradfield programme.