Passover and the American Zion

The Passover narrative is a political treatise on liberty and a theological reflection upon the sanctity of freedom. The Hebrews are commanded to worship God as free men. Further, the Law that was revealed by God to Israel required that the Hebrews emancipate themselves prior to receiving it. It is man’s moral obligation to become free. For truth be told, man is born into bondage… to impulse and ignorance.

Freedom cannot be demanded. It can only be earned. It begins first in the human soul. Experiments in freedom often have turned into tyranny because people misconstrued freedom as doing whatever one feels like. But, liberty actually begins in mutual obligation. Freedom can decompensate into chaos. In a true democracy, the Greek historian Polybius argued, “the whole crowd of citizens” is not free to do whatever they wish. Therefore, freedom must be tempered by order. Ultimately, it is not the order imposed by others that assures freedom and equality. An external order can become oppressive. Only the order that man perceives as transcendent, as deriving from our perception and understanding of God that guarantees human rights and liberty. It is the order derived from a fundamental acknowledgement that one must “love thy neighbor as thyself”. This obligation, its author understood, insures that a healthy self-interest would not be allowed to deteriorate into narcissism; the poisonous seed of all pathology.

The Hebrews were not revolutionaries. They did not attempt to change Egypt. They only sought to transform themselves. They were circumspect in not confusing tolerance and liberty. They had come to Egypt on their own for economic gain and lived well for some time, but a new regime changed the rules. Therefore, only by accepting the burden of liberty would the Hebrews be able to live their lives as they believed to be proper.

Passover is also an American narrative. Puritan settlers of Massachusetts thought of themselves as reenacting the exodus of the Hebrews from bondage in ancient Egypt. When William Bradford stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, he quoted Jeremiah: "Come let us declare in Zion the word of God." Years later, Cotton Mather spoke of the colonies as "an instrument" of the Almighty in establishing Israel in America."  

Beyond the temporal political and security concerns that bind America and Israel, both nations share a similar interpretation of their history. And both nations employ the Passover in order to explain themselves. While the Founding Fathers often referenced Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hobbs and Locke, they intuitively identified with Israel. Theology, as Ann Ulanov wrote, is an unconscious process. It mediates between intuition and reason. It is an attempt at explaining the ineffable.

Thus, we would take seriously, Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion that the Great Seal should be the image of Moses leading the Hebrews across the Red Sea. Franklin and his colleagues were not risking their lives over a tax dispute. They were prepared to die because they apprehended the transcendent value of liberty. The Exodus became a spiritual paradigm of colonial rebellion. Both nations saw in their historic efforts a Divine will; an imperative to be free. The Hebrews chiseled liberty into the Ten Commandments; describing God as their Liberator. The Founding Fathers listed these ultimate values as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” 

Accepting oppression constitutes a grave transgression. And there are times when the rabbinic sages argued that a man must prepare to die rather than to transgress. Two thousand years ago, a small Jewish garrison held out against three Roman legions for three years atop Massada.  Knowing that their capture by Romans was imminent, Elazar ben Yair, argued for death rather than slavery. Patrick Henry agreed. Both the Hebrews and the Americans were prepared to fight for and, if need be, die in the service of this conviction. Moses instructed his people to remember that freedom is in reality never bestowed upon us. Moses and Aaron convened secret meetings with the Hebrews and reviewed their grievances. Slavery or “alienated labor” was an economic grievance which would make sense to the average person. But they also had a deeper spiritual purpose in mind. The Hebrews did not escape from Egypt. They left Egypt in “military formation” (Exodus 12:51). They were armed and trained. Freedom cannot be granted. It must, by its own inner logic, be assumed.

Theology helps us to understand that history is not about what was; it is about the present. Accordingly, the Exodus and its vicissitudes did not happen only then. The Exodus continues for un-freedom threatens all of us. Liberation is an ongoing struggle which Isaiah pointed out was primarily the effort to rid ourselves of the idols of delusion. Liberty demands that we face the truth. It begins in the mind. It is an effort that begins in our own spirit as we try to resist the power of unconscious forces. It is social and political as we contend with the oppressive consequences of political correctness.

Freedom is forever in danger. Moses’ instruction to his people as to the manner in which they were to celebrate the Passover indicates his comprehension of liberty as an eternal struggle. The matzah was to be eaten while we are standing with our shoes on our feet, in battle dress (Hebrew: hagor), with staff in hand ready to move as if we were actually participating in the ancient journey ourselves (Exodus 12:11).  

Later, the spiritual leaders of America would speak of the price of liberty as eternal vigilance.  Speaking to members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society Wendell Phillips said:

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten…. Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by un-intermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”

These ideas resurfaced a century after the Civil War and as the abolitionist movement became an indigenous emancipation movement, church choirs throughout the South chanted “Moses down in Egypt land say to Pharaoh let my People go.” Passover became the context of countless “freedom seders” as Americans understood what the German poet Heine meant when he said since the Exodus liberty has been spoken in a Hebrew accent.  It is the American Passover that signifies the spiritual bond between two nations, speaking different languages and worshipping in different forms. Israel is proof that the American understanding of freedom is correct. Nations are not made free and slaves cannot really be emancipated. For the emancipator can once again become the master.

Un-freedom surrounds us all. That is why the sine qua non of liberty is courage. No one else can make you free. But, more significantly Israel demonstrates that freedom is not simply political; it is moral and intellectual. During two thousand years in Exile, Jews practiced freedom. At every Passover Seder we symbolically enacted the great drama. Gamliel taught that in each and every generation we should see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. We practiced freedom until the day came when we were able to reclaim it.

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