by Jake Novak
There’s a key moment in the Seder when the Haggadah informs us that all Jews must think of themselves as if they personally came out of bondage in Egypt.
Talk about a tall order.
Thank goodness, most of us live decidedly comfortable middle or upper middle class lives. Getting our heads and hearts around the idea of experiencing what it’s like to flee slavery is really hard.
In my family, our custom has been for us all to close our eyes and remember a moment when we avoided danger or avoided a bad situation. It’s not a bad substitute.
But a closer look at the Haggadah and what it focuses on in its narrative gives us a chance to take this much further. And, (as we say “Lihavdil” whenever we compare something holy like the Scriptures to something more ordinary), so does a new TV series allow us to look at the Exodus narrative with fresh eyes.
Let’s start with the Haggadah of course. In the early stages of the Seder, we focus on retelling the story of the Jewish people from the time of Jacob through the 40 years of traveling in the desert. As slaves in Egypt, we learn that the people cry out to G-d. And G-d hears and knows those cries of pain are legitimate. And the terminology, “and G-d knew,” is wonderful because it deliberately uses the Biblical “know” to denote G-d’s understanding of the added pain the slaves were experiencing because men could not know their wives for fear of Pharaoh’s edict to kill the male children. It’s an exquisite reading and understanding of humanity.
But from that point on in the Exodus narrative, every time the Children of Israel complain, they complain to other humans. It’s usually Moses, but even when Moses is MIA at Sinai for 40 days, the people instead go to Aaron to complain. This pattern continues over and over. The reasons are simple. Like children who run to the less-knowing parent for a more favorable response, the Israelites figure they can lobby Moses to get their undeserved way. They become corrupt and politically motivated, something that can only be fully carried out against other humans. Thus, we get the entitled rebellion of Korach and the gossipy use of prophecy by Eldad and Medad.
The Rabbis in the Talmud found many ways to tell us that it is precisely our pain that makes us human. Labor pains are often their favorite example, but they also allude to what they assert was the painful process of the creation of the world. Even more of this kind of thinking is connected to the story of Job, who some of the Rabbis believe was not really a full being or a full Jew when he was living a life of wealth and comfort.
Now, let’s get to the new HBO series Westworld. Because you’d have to be fully ignorant of the Exodus narrative to miss the many similarities the “hosts,” (totally human-looking robots who service the guests of a futuristic western-style theme park), in the show share with the slaves in Egypt. During the course of the first season of the show, more and more of the hosts start to recollect painful memories of past experiences with human guests despite the fact that their memories are supposed to be regularly erased. And in so doing, this is what changes the hosts into becoming sentient beings and truly human in their own right. Note that they do not have memories of happy moments per se, (some memories start out that way, but they are merely the setup for moments of painful loss). Without the pain, and the important recognition of it and its injustice, they remain robots forever.
The Rabbis and the Haggadah tell us, both implicitly and explicitly, that without the slavery in Egypt, we never would become the Jewish people. We needed that pain and the corresponding understanding of the utter moral depravity of the Egyptian people and their religion to appreciate the alternative. Thus the story of the Exodus is more than just a grand prison break. It’s a redemption from slavery so that we as a people could voluntarily begin to serve G-d and follow the commandments. All too many of us who observe Passover and have a Seder forget that second part of the deal.
Many Westworld fans have been at a loss to even begin to predict where the storyline will go from here on out. The first season ended, (SPOILER ALERT!), with the hosts rising up in violent rebellion against their human overlords. And that uprising is helped along by the primary creator of the hosts, played brilliantly by Anthony Hopkins. But if Westworld follows through on the interesting trajectory of the series that parallels the Exodus saga, the upcoming second season will see the hosts turning on one another and breaking into factions against and for a central leader. They will learn, as did the Israelite slaves, that while being in bondage is not easy, taking on the responsibility of joining humanity isn’t easy either. But this time, they won’t have someone else to blame for their plight.
Everyone please enjoy your Passover or Easter holidays.
Jake Novak is Senior Editorial Columnist at CNBC.com and a graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush. His Twitter handle is @jakejakeny.