Origin of Species – Pesach and Darwin

When Dan lent me his book From Darwin to Hitler by Richard Weikart, I really had no idea it would clarify, for me, the weight and importance of the Jewish focus on the Exodus from Egypt in general and the Seder Night in particular.

“There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical.  A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly.  Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does, thro’ final cause, link material to moral; … You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it.  Were it possible to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.”

This is how Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s former mentor in natural science at the University of Cambridge,  expressed his fear of the moral consequences of Darwin’s famous work Origin of Species.  He found the idea of a man whose ancestors were apes a terrifying prospect for the ethical future of humanity.

The Hagadah is our version of Origin of Species.  Through the narrative we trace  the evolution of our people.  The story begins not with some prehistoric humanoid, grunting his way between the trees but with our patriarch, Avraham.  He who asserts monotheism and in the ultimate iconoclastic act smashes his father’s idols along with the pantheistic ideology of the time.  He champions the ideals of caring, kindness, justice and truth and the concept of a Supernatural Being that unites all and values those very same ideals.

His descendants perpetuate his morals. On the verge of becoming lost in the sands of history, a people of slaves to the mightiest empire of the time, they are miraculously rescued.  The One that fashioned the world, intervenes to save those that adhere to His ideals. There they are charged to be a beacon of light to all people for all times.

The events that precipitated their redemption, totally sabotaged the natural order and affirmed the notion of nature as a mask, designed to allow our inner knowledge and convictions to be a choice and not a compulsion.  We have cherished this lesson, this way of seeing the world, ever since.  We have relived this event, as families and communities, across the wide expanse of the globe and through the long millennia, on the 15th of Nisan, at night.  Then we eat the same food as they did and re-experience the slavery and the rescue.  And we declare, “Our ancestors were men and women of spirit and  fortitude, kind and upright, a people who devoted their lives to supplant the mistaken notion that we are accidents of nature.  We will carry that ideal with us, this year we may still be a minority, a small and unheard voice but next year our call will echo through the world.  This year we are here next year in Jerusalem.”