The Origins of a Nation
“Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand. . . . You go free on this day, in the month of the Spring” (Exod. 13:3b–4).
As we set our tables and prepare for our seders, we cannot help but hear the echoes of our journey from persecution to freedom amplified in the headlines. Our holiday of Hodesh Ha’aviv—the “Month of the Spring”—comes at a time when the ripple effects of what has been dubbed the Arab Spring are just beginning to be felt. The recent 2010 Human Rights Report of the U.S. State Department emphasizes that any retrospective analysis of North Africa and the Middle East must take into account how the landscape has changed dramatically over the past few months. What the report (as flawed as pieces of it are) finds intriguing about the Arab Spring is that the demands for “meaningful political participation, fundamental freedoms, and greater economic opportunity” are driven by overwhelmingly younger citizens who “seek to build sustainable democracies in their countries.”
How do we—as a world community and as a people who experienced a similar national awakening—help write the next chapter in this story? And how do we ensure that the course is one of construction and not destruction? The lure of religious fanaticism is strong; and writing a national narrative that sets a course for pluralism is a challenge that can only be met through encouragement and guidance. A vacuum will be filled by what occupies the most space surrounding it.
The story of our national origin that we read at the seder can serve as a relevant guide.
When called to lead the children of Israel from slavery to freedom, Moses’s overwhelming concern was not how Pharaoh would respond to his insolence, but rather whether he would be able to convince these slaves that they were a people to be redeemed. Moses never questions the legitimacy of the mission. He recognizes the plight of the Israelites as God does. His reluctance hinges on the questions of his ability to turn these people into a nation. Redeeming slaves is much more than freeing them from shackles. Redemption will only come once the people recognize their position as a nation.
Throughout the narrative, Moses reiterates his concern. “Moses said to God, ‘When I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?'” (Exod. 3:13). Beyond the signs and wonders that God gives Moses to act as his bona fides, God continuously reassures him that the elders and the children of Israel “will listen to you” (Exod. 3:18).
Early in the narrative, Moses recognized the challenge of nation building, and Rabbi David Silber, in his excellent new Haggadah, Go Forth and Learn, includes an essay that understands the Passover offering as the community-building experience that will solve Moses’s issues. Silber contends that the offering served four purposes, “each of which played a key role in the formation of the nascent nation” (2011, 65). In my mind, the most compelling of these purposes is what he refers to as national awakening. At the beginning of our Exodus narrative, Moses beseeches Pharaoh to let the children of Israel go to the wilderness to worship God. Leaving aside the issue of whether they would return if the original request was granted, we are left with the question of what the intent of this three-day service to God was. Silber suggests that, “Moses believed the sacrificial service to be essential to forming a national identity, in itself a necessary precursor to the Exodus” (66). This service needed to be completed outside of Egypt so the people would recognize themselves as distinct from the Egyptians surrounding them—and to illustrate that they had an existence separate from bondage. Silber brings proof by illustrating that after the children of Israel experienced the plagues—which themselves functioned as a significant nation-building experience—leaving Egypt to make the Passover offering was superfluous. “By the time God instructs the people to prepare the paschal lamb, the Israelites have been transformed and their physical presence in Egypt is no longer an impediment to achieving the goal of collective, identity-building worship” (67).
But what do we do with our experiences of national awakening? How do we ensure that they serve as the building blocks to a responsible national identity and not lead us down the road to religious extremism?
Whether we approach these questions as the wise, simple, or challenging child—or simply don’t know how to ask—the Haggadah helps us find the words to answer. “You should begin, as it says: ‘And you shall tell your child on that day saying, “For the sake of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt”‘” (Exod. 13:8). The recurring motif of the Haggadah is the central role of education. There are questions, but never unilateral answers. There are discussions, but never only one side of an issue. The Haggadah encourages us to engage in the conversations and challenge ourselves. It guides us with shadowy hands to come to a constructive understanding of our national awakening.
Children are not born fanatics or extremists; they are taught to fear and hate. Eboo Patel, in his book Acts of Faith, distinguishes between the two sides of what he calls the faith line: those who will respond with totalitarianism, and those who will respond by recognizing fundamental freedoms. What distinguishes the two, Patel writes, is the “web of individuals and organizations that shape them.” It is education that creates fanatics, but when shaped by people who care about pluralism, education can make a national awakening one that will foster freedom.
As we prepare to relive and relearn our own Exodus narrative, we cannot help but feel the shock waves of the myriad of other such narratives still reverberating around the world. We can take a lesson from our seders this year: only through careful guidance and honest conversation can we leave Egypt and become a nation embracing freedom.
Hag kasher ve-sameah. Warm regards for a joyous Passover.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.