Monday, April 10, 2006

The 80/20 rule

This article appeared last Pesach on ShrinkWrapped, entitled "20%: On Action and Passivity" - I think it is well worth a read ahead of Wednesday night's Seder feast.


The Passover Holiday, celebrated by Jews around the world, has just ended. This Holiday represents a central myth of the Jewish people, that "we were slaves in Egypt and God brought us out" to freedom. Furthermore, we are instructed:

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt. As it says: "You shall tell your son on that day, 'It is because of this that God took me out of Egypt.'" (Exodus 13:8)

It is a powerful myth of a persecuted people being freed by the intercession of their God. In my research into the meaning of Passover, how it might still be relevant today, and what gives it the emotional resonance it still has, I came across a comment I had never seen before. This comes from Rabbi Stephen Baars, writing on Assimilation Then and Now:

The Talmud records that in actuality, only 20 percent of the Jewish people left Egypt. The other 80 percent did not identify strongly enough with the Jewish people's role and goal. They were too assimilated and immersed in Egyptian society. So they stayed behind.

Passover this year, fell on the 62nd anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a doomed rebellion carried out by the 60,000 Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who remained of the original 300,000. For a painful, very human description of the day to day evolution of the uprising, take a look at "The Ghetto Fights," by Marek Edelman, published in a pamphlet called "The Warsaw Ghetto: The 45th Anniversary of the Uprising". (Hat tip to Horsefeathers).

I was struck by the same 20% occurring in the Exodus story and in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Rabbi Baars suggests that those who stayed behind were assimilated and thus unable to imagine a life of freedom; further, in this case freedom meant the unknown. He added:

The Haggadah is focusing us on the fact that our ancestors were among the group that had the courage and foresight to leave.

It is always difficult to make changes. We may feel that freedom is too elusive, that we don't have the drive, stamina and determination to make bold decisions. The Haggadah reminds us that we are part of the group that left. It is in our blood. We have the ability to make dramatic changes. If we so desire.

I do not think this explanation does justice to those forces which tend to always support the status quo. I wrote in an early post that all living creatures tend toward conservatism (ie, they resist change). This is the nature of Homeostasis and Conservatism. Why would 80% of the Hebrews remain in Egypt? Even after being warned that more terrible plagues were on the way, they remained. How could it be that three and a half millennia later, 80% of the inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto were shipped out to concentration camps, even in the face of rumors and stories of horrors (most of which people couldn't allow themselves to believe) before the remaining 20% fought back?

It is all too human to refuse to see the danger right in front of us. Few of us can look into the face of evil and not be terrified. Perhaps we should not wonder so much about the intellectual gymnastics of those who invent paranoid fantasies to blame us for our problems (take a look at Dr. Sanity's post and this Daily Standard article by Paul Mirengoff of Powerline), better we should marvel that a majority of Americans were able, after the horrors of 9/11 and with the promise of worse still to come, to stand up and face the evil. More than 50% of us voted to re-elect the President who would have us continue the struggle rather than try to pull the covers over our heads and hope the monsters would go away and leave us alone.

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