A Passover Journey Towards Freedom from Personality Cults

As a secular but very Jewish New York Jew, I have a strong connection to Passover. In our home for over 30 years we did an alternative Seder with up to 50 people at our table. We always included a transposed story of the Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the Four Questions, some Jewish jokes because humor is what also tied my friend Roseanne and me to our Jewish identity.

The Exodus story was the beginning. The theme shifted from and to, topics of freedom and enslavement, such as the Holocaust, enslavement of other peoples, and inner enslavement and freedom as well. A key purpose of the holiday is the obligation to feel what it was like to be slaves so we can appreciate our freedom. In our alternative Seder, our purpose was a little different. We didn’t see ourselves or the world at large as free but rather, at our best, in the process of becoming free. Freedom meant more than outer declarations, and it was not at all smug; you might say we felt the humility of the journeys we were embarking on or needed to.

This year, we are besieged by the plague of coronavirus. Many are assaulted by acute loneliness, anxiety, and being overwhelmed by the 24/7 presence of many children and their demands and needs, as just some examples. Some of us are alarmed by the insistent presentation by the President that his assessment is the only valid one, even when he contradicts or altogether avoids pleas and testimony of health care professionals, scientists, governors.

Right now, we appear to have a cult of personality in our midst. We have a President who seems to feel he has supreme access to any and all pertinent facts. His sneers, his firings, his ridicule of warnings about the virus at the beginning and his insistence on calling it the Chinese virus, only perpetuated his communication of being above the fray. In a cult of personality, the hero’s or the President’s personality leads the way. And as such, anyone seen as questioning or contradicting his assessment, risks the shaming and shunning of his majesty. This may seem little, compared to the freedom gained by seeking facts and truth, but it can’t be minimized. Many would do almost anything to avoid feeling or being shamed, especially when the shaming is public.

When you have someone, who is a bully and masterful as a magician at his vocation, he/she can play tricks on you. He can change the topic without being called on it because the audience or the person questioning him quickly finds it deteriorates into name calling. Accountability goes out the door because if you are called a bad name — by an authority no less — it is easy to cower, or to slip as on a banana peel, becoming the butt of ridicule once again. And if there is no accountability, when you apply facts to the argument, you become the straight man, while he is cackling in front of his cronies at the podium.

And what about those cronies? Why don’t they speak up if what their leader is saying is egregious? Well they don’t want to be fired, but even more — embarrassed, shamed, poked fun at. If Trump, let’s say, changes a topic or calls someone a liar, it all goes quickly and he can say, because he can, “You don’t know what you’re talking about”, or call someone who questions him a bad journalist or pathetic or a liar, or fat or — and the list goes on.

It’s taken me a long time to realize why I hate debating. It’s because too often there isn’t a real respect for thinking and hesitating, intellect and even changing one’s mind mid-stream. It becomes bloody when people want to win at any cost, without regard to respect for facts and for other human beings. It’s bloody when humiliation becomes the right of the person in charge. And it is even bloodier when we become accustomed to it, we being people on either side of the wall.

When people have felt humiliated in the past ongoingly, they/we can struggle to reverse the feelings of helplessness of once upon a time. It is easy to become attracted to a one up situation, in which we can identify with the person in command. We are part of the powerful group, not that of those considered losers, those mocked and demeaned.

There are people who do not want to entertain information that is contrary, not only to what they believe, but to what the President says. If people go this far, especially during this pandemic of coronavirus, we desperately need the truth — the truth that is uncontaminated by political expediency. We need also to see how things unfold, and not expect the truth ever to stay static or one-sided and unchanging. However, if we can’t question authority we can’t get to the truth.

When I work with bullying, I like to say that just because a person seems smarter, yells louder, hits stronger, and in this case is the best at humiliating, doesn’t mean they are right. Just because someone is clever and shrewd, this is no substitute for intelligence, which includes a capacity and willingness to grapple with new circumstances with care.

It’s a process, one that often goes up and down and in and out, this business of freedom. Whenever we are compulsive in our actions or beliefs, it goes missing, even if we sing odes to it — freedom that is.

I pray, in my own way, that it can be possible that Exodus this year might mean moving, and being motivated to move with more courage to, seek the truth, even when it is inconvenient.

Happy Passover, and to freedom in our time.

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