On the Seder night, we have many textual and culinary contradictions that force us to hold opposing sentiments together in complex relationship to each other. We eat a peculiar sandwich of matza – the bread of our freedom – and maror with a small amount of haroset. The bitter and sweet, the slave and free human being, collapse into each other. We celebrate the release of our people from bondage while acknowledging their new servant status to a God with whom they are finally becoming reacquainted. Hebrew is not a word-rich language. The word “eved” is used to describe a slave in the Bible and also a servant of God. 

In the Hallel – Psalms 113-118 – that we read on the Seder night, we encounter a line that confirms this– “O Lord, truly I am Your servant (“eved”); I am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant; You have freed me from my chains.” Perhaps no part of the Haggada highlights the oppositional nature of our new status with greater starkness. You, God, freed me from chains, and now I am truly a servant. 

If we are merely exchanging slave status for slave status then our autonomy is compromised in either case. The exchange would be not so much our own self-identity but the nature of our masters. We went from tyrant to benign King of Kings. Alternatively, we can understand this collective national transition as one from coerced servitude to freely-chosen service.

There was a time when non-profit professionals were called communal servants. The language felt pejorative to some. It feels ennobling to me. As a community, perhaps we have lost a sense of what it means to serve with our leadership. Robert Greenleaf (1904-1990), who coined the term servant-leadership in the early 1970s arrived at this notion not in a church but in a corporation. Working for AT&T, he questioned power-based corporate structures that thrive on hierarchy. His conclusion: “Good leaders must first become good servants.” This was not simply a change of language; it represented a paradigmatic shift in orientation. Servants listen more than they speak; they seek influence rather than power. They feel humbled and elevated through contracting their own needs and making someone else’s primary.

“Ego can’t sleep,” Greenleaf wrote in Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, “It micro-manages. It disempowers. It reduces our capability. It excels in control.” Greenleaf carefully studied the ego needs of hierarchical leaders and observed that, “Ego focuses on one’s own survival, pleasure, and enhancement to the exclusion of others; ego is selfishly ambitious. It sees relationships in terms of threat or no threat, like little children who classify all people as “nice” or “mean.” Conscience, on the other hand, both democratizes and elevates ego to a larger sense of the group, the whole, the community, the greater good. It sees life in terms of service and contribution, in terms of others’ security and fulfillment.” 

It is not hard to see why Greenleaf’s philosophy of leadership was easily integrated with a religious worldview. In fact, every year I do a random Amazon search by typing in the words “Christian” and “leadership” into the search engine. As of mid-March, this year’s number of books on this theme: 30, 399. This far outruns Jewish books on the subject. 

Maybe it’s time to get comfortable with being a servant again, to see this term as ennobling and enabling. Passover asks us to be better servants. It is the season to question and quash ego-based leadership for service-based leadership: “Truly, I am Your servant…”

Dr. Erica Brown has taught in The Wexner Foundation’s programs for many years. Her latest book is Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada. You can also learn more from Erica on her website ericabrown.com.