Did Pharoah Cause the Recession?

Sermon delivered April 3, 2009, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

“Our history moves from slavery toward freedom. Our narration begins with degradation and rises to dignity.”

When we read these lines in our Haggadah on Wednesday night, our words will be paired with Passover symbols, reminding us of the best and the worst of our people’s past. Matzah is a symbol of slavery: the “poor bread, which our ancestors ate as slaves in Egypt.” But unleavened bread is also the bread of freedom, baked by the Children of Israel who escaped Egypt in haste, no time to let the dough rise.

On Wednesday night, and throughout Passover, we recall slavery, but we concentrate on God’s saving power. We shall not dwell on the tragedy of slavery, or even of the near-genocide in biblical Egypt, every baby boy thrown into the Nile. Except for the briefest of excerpts, we shall not focus on the causes of our enslavement. Instead, we shall celebrate redemption.

But we will recall “a king who knew not Joseph.” Ah, yes, the Pharaoh, namely the second one of the Torah. The first Egyptian King, the one we meet in Genesis, is benign. He dreams a couple of dreams. Joseph interprets, and is named Prime Minister of Egypt, ultimately saving Egypt from the grip of famine.

But then, generations later, that new Pharaoh ascends to the throne. The Rabbis ask: Did he really not know of Joseph? How could that be? The Rabbis imagine Joseph and his acts to have been widely recorded. Surely, the new King knew about Joseph. No, the Rabbis teach, Torah doesn’t mean to tell us that Pharaoh never heard of Joseph; instead, he “pretended not to know.”

I am reminded of the maxim, “Those who do not know the past are bound to repeat it.” How much greater is the responsibility of those who are aware of, but who choose to ignore, the lessons of history.

Perhaps today’s desperate financial downturn emanates from the same impulse that brought on Egyptian bondage.

Pharaoh finds the presence of Jews inconvenient. The King harbors a paranoid fear that this separate ethnic group inside Egypt may become a fifth column, sealing Egypt’s doom by allying with invading forces from the outside. But how to put down a people that has done nothing wrong, particularly one whose progenitor saved the nation? Well, he “forgot.” With God’s help, Pharaoh’s willful disregard for history brings great destruction upon Egypt.

Something similar seems to have happened here in the United States, over the last thirty years.

Had we forgotten that overheated markets would eventually crash, with stock values falling to approximate the worth the corporations themselves: Dayyeinu, it probably would have been enough to cause a great recession.

Had we forgotten that pure capitalist principles dictate that disconnecting the compensation of corporate leaders from their corporations’ performance would lead captains of industry to abandon their fiduciary responsibilities: Dayyeinu.

Had we forgotten that capitalism works only because individuals pursue their own interests, and therefore only regulation can protect society as a whole: Dayyeinu.

Had we forgotten that petroleum shortages had once before almost sent our economy to collapse, with foreign automakers overtaking our own as the domestic industry fended off regulations requiring them to meet the challenges of the future: Dayyeinu.

Had we forgotten that permitting banks also to be brokerages and also to be insurance companies, and vice versa, leads inevitably disastrous failures: Dayyeinu.

But we did it. We forgot it all. Dayyeinu. It was enough. The “Great Recession” has come.

A particularly searing example took place in the late 1990s. Then, the brilliant minds who steered the greatest expansion of the economy in our nation’s history decided that American financial institutions needed to be freed from the bonds of regulation. Think bipartisanship is a new phenomenon? Look only to this example: The Clinton White House proposed, and the Republican Congress overwhelmingly approved, a measure that allowed banks to become brokerage houses to become insurance companies to become banks, and back around again. This act of deregulation reversed one of the most effective banking regulations of the 1930s, a law that helped restore confidence in the Depression-Era financial system, one piece of our nation’s slow crawl out of its darkest economic days.

But a new generation of American leaders arose, and they knew not the Depression. Had they really never heard of it? Of course not! They chose to ignore its lessons.

Like Pharaoh, these American leaders feared a foreign invasion. No, they were not worried about armies from abroad. Instead, they argued that American financial institutions could not compete in a global market, as some other nations’ banks were not similarly restricted.

But were these American leaders evil like Pharaoh? They did not decree that every baby boy be tossed into the Nile.

Perhaps some were motivated by good. They believed that deregulation would allow American institutions to thrive. They thought that what’s good for Wall Street is good for Main Street, that growing wealth among America’s richest would benefit even the poorest in our midst.

Others, though, were simply greedy; or worse, Machiavellian. Our corporate leaders sought ever greater wealth for themselves and those like them. The gap between rich and poor in this nation grew to levels better known previously in Latin America, with its elite few and impoverished masses. Our politicians sought ever longer tenures, ever greater power for themselves. And these corporate leaders and politicians are intertwined. Both of our major political parties and their candidates feed at Wall Street’s trough. When the financial institutions’ bosses demanded deregulation, their virtual employees in the White House and on Capitol Hill could hardly decline.

We have every reason to be ashamed, and to be angry. As a nation, we forgot history’s lessons. To paraphrase our High Holy Day liturgy: some may be particularly guilty; but in a democracy, we are all responsible. We are all that Pharaoh who chose to forget Joseph.

But Wednesday night, we shall not dwell on Pharaoh. Instead, we shall tell our children, and remind ourselves, of God’s wondrous saving power. We will recall slavery merely as a prologue to the celebration of redemption. Passover is zeman heiruteinu, the season of our freedom, not the season of servitude.

So, too, even in these most terrible of financial times, let us concentrate on our nation’s suffering only enough that we never again forget its cause. Let us never again forget history, or pretend to forget.

But let us recall, over and again, that God is the Source of our help, even in toughest times. Our prayerbook reminds us that perhaps “God does not bring water to parched fields or rebuild a broken city.” However, God can “water a parched soul and rebuild a weakened will.”

Let our spirits be renewed by our celebrations this Passover, and let us labor decisively to bring our nation out of recession. Let us recall that our people and our nation have suffered much greater degradation than we do this year, and we have come through those trials ever stronger. And let us reaffirm our faith that this recession need not define us and need not be the lot of our lives or the life of our nation forever.

The Psalmist taught: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Our ancestors shed tears that for us are salty water for parsley at a festival. The Great Depression was followed by decades of prosperity. Let us pray that Elijah will herald the magnificent future before America, Israel, and all the world, when this recession draws to a close, may it be speedily and soon, in our own day.