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Jews throughout the world celebrate the first nights of Passover, which commemorate God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt 3,500 years ago. The focus is the Seder, a meal at which a variety of commandments are fulfilled, most notably the eating of matza (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs), and the recitation of Hallel (psalms of praise). We recount the story of redemption contained in the Haggadah, the “telling” of the exodus comprising a compilation of rabbinic texts and traditional songs that elaborate on the themes and laws pertaining to Passover. This observance is central to Jewish life and is perhaps the best known Jewish tradition among the non-Jewish. What does it teach?

For most American Jews, the story of the exodus is about moving from slavery to freedom. We were slaves to Pharaoh; now we are emancipated. This message reinforces contemporary ideals that Jews share with their non-Jewish neighbors. It dovetails with pride in the American achievement of civil rights and gratitude for Jewish emancipation in the modern era. Most of the uncles, aunts, and other relatives at my childhood sedarim were coming primarily to a family reunion. To the extent that they tackled the meaning of Passover, their thoughts were consistent with this social and political sensibility.

The story is more complicated, however. There is an alternative or complementary experience, one that plays a crucial role in Orthodox Jewish practice and thought. Studying it, I believe, can be important for non-Jews as well. Whatever the legitimate social-political, secular, or theologically liberal appropriations of the story, the exodus from Egypt also serves as a prelude to the revelation at Sinai less than two months later. Thus the more theological emphasis of this approach to Passover: Freedom is to be cherished because it paves the way to divine law. We shall see that this reading, likewise, does not stand alone. In the Bible, in Jewish reflection, and in contemporary life, the themes of political freedom and absolute fealty to God’s law interact in unexpected ways.

For those who define the full sweep of life in terms of commitment to the commandments, the anticipation of Sinai permeates and governs experience of the exodus. This sensibility is reinforced by the Haggadah. It famously lists four types of sons gathered around the ­Seder table: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know to ask. The wise son inquires, “What are these testimonies, statutes, and judgments that the Lord our God has commanded you?” He is characterized by his avidity for learning all the laws and statutes of Passover.

On this definition of wisdom, the Orthodox community I inhabit can claim a measure of success. The festive mood is present and prominent, especially in handing over the story to the younger generation; indeed, I have been among celebrants, from children to septuagenarians, joyously dancing around the table at 3 a.m. Yet for participants who are “insiders” to Orthodox practice, the halakhic obligations are of the essence, and the religious understanding of the event is oriented to theocentric or theonomic worship, which is less pervasive in theologically liberal circles that emphasize the political and cultural aspects of freedom.

According to the social-political interpretation, freedom means the end of bondage. If you have been enslaved, redemption means no longer being subjected to oppressive and meaningless toil. And, for Jews, the normative memory of slavery is ­inseparable from the threat of extermination. The Book of Exodus refers to Pharaoh’s instructions to kill the Jews’ male children, and one passage in the Haggadah reminds us that our enemies “in every generation plot our destruction.” When Holocaust survivors were conspicuous in our midst, it was—and even still is today—virtually impossible to conduct the Seder without contemplating what they endured and how they salvaged their lives and their communities.

President Obama visited Israel in 2013, right after Passover. He spoke for four minutes about the meaning of the exodus for him and for many others, and he mentioned the biblical themes of slavery and wandering in the desert. He did not omit faithfulness to God and to the Torah as part of the story. What he stressed most, however, was the exodus as a story of political freedom. Obama’s script reflected his political program. His speech echoed the Israeli anthem Hatikva (“to be a free people in our own land”), and though he referred explicitly to Zionism, his universal phrasing was clearly a gesture toward other national liberation movements, including the aspirations of the Palestinians. Obama’s homily expressed an upbeat version of the social-political reading of the exodus. Even as slavery, persecution, and injustice are commemorated, the inspirational rhetoric leans forward, toward the hopeful future. Regarding God and the Torah, secular politicians, if only for prudential reasons, are disinclined to be specific.

The traditionalist confronting the same chapters in Exodus discerns the giving of the Torah foreshadowed in the extended dialogue in which God imposes the task of leadership on Moses (­Exodus 3–4). There, Moses is told that he has been commissioned to take the people out of Egypt so they can be brought to worship God on the mountain of Sinai (Exodus 3:12). The Jewish commentators identify this worship with the reception of the Torah, and the popular medieval commentary of Rashi asserts that this worship is the purpose of the exodus. The encounter with God is thus presented as the destination of Moses’s mission. If the liberal orientation harks back to Moses’s demand to “Let my people go,” a dominant strand of Orthodox sensibility insists on the end of the verse on which the spiritual song is based: “Let my people go that they may serve me” (Exodus 8:1).

This theme of Sinai as the inner meaning of the exodus was vigorously promoted by many representative and influential spiritual guides of the Eastern European schools. Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (died 1936) posited that the essence of the Passover observance is to be found in the ­anticipation of the Sinai revelation two months later. Once we have internalized this understanding, which draws upon the most transcendent aspects of the Jewish experience, any attempt to reduce the exodus to a more equitable social system or to political liberation sounds pale and inauthentic. For the expositors of the social-political orientation, however, the journey to Sinai is at best peripheral to the Seder and, more often than not, absent.

The Bible’s omissions are sometimes eloquent. What is not said speaks volumes. Genesis 15 (“the covenant of the pieces”) anticipates some of the basic elements of the exodus. God informs Abraham that his offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, where they will be oppressed, and from which they will eventually emerge. Nothing is said about possible reasons for this exile. The opening chapter of Exodus gives the reasons why the Egyptian potentate decides to oppress the Israelites. But Exodus, too, is silent about God’s reasons.

Proposals about the “why” have been offered from Talmudic times on, and many of us would feel instinctively that great things do not come to pass without suffering. But the texts of ­Genesis and Exodus seem indifferent to the question. A parallel question—what is the purpose of the ­oppression?—asks what justifies the suffering as part of the divine plan. But again Genesis and ­Exodus say nothing about how the oppression suffered by the children of Israel better prepares them for their redeemed future.

The Seder night commemoration “begins with disgrace and ends with praise,” as the Haggadah puts it. One Talmudic interpretation of this required order of exposition is the spiritual progress from the disgrace of Abraham’s idolatrous father Terah to the service of the God of Israel. The other identifies the progress from enslavement to liberation. Both views are reflected in the Haggadah. A simple explanation of this requirement is that recognizing how bad it was before enhances our present joy and gratitude.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (died 1935), chief rabbi of Ashkenazic Palestine, sought a deeper explanation of the need to begin with disgrace and end with praise; he was thus led to meditate on the purpose of the enslavement.Consonant with a strain of Hegelian optimism, or more precisely monism, in his philosophy, Rabbi Kook was keen to show that God’s plan, as expressed in the Haggadah, is to ensure a positive benefit achieved through the initial “disgrace” of slavery. Rabbi Kook suggests that the habit of obedience and the capacity for toil that the Hebrew slaves learned under the lash of Pharaoh’s taskmasters were an appropriate preparation for Israel’s subjugation to the divine commandments once they left Egypt. Advocates for the social-political view of the exodus might arrive at a parallel notion. They could maintain that the evil of slavery is beneficial, because it inculcates the habit of hard work—or some other secular virtue, such as moral endurance—that is fully realized once liberation is achieved. Yet it is unlikely that they would take joy in this lesson. Better for free men to learn virtue in other ways. Rabbi Kook’s theocentric vision gives a more positive meaning to the time of “disgrace.”He assesses slavery in terms of Israel’s future dedication to divine service. It is a providential sequence to be affirmed.

We have sketched two contrasting answers to the question “Let my people go—for what?” One emphasizes political and social liberation; the other is directed to the Sinai covenant of commitment to God’s command. We may be tempted to read the biblical record retrospectively, from the standpoint either of secular values or of law-centered religiosity, and then conclude that we must choose one and reject the other. I believe that the biblical record, as we find it in Genesis and Exodus, does not force us to see these alternatives as mutually exclusive. If we appreciate the complexity of the Bible and of its classic rabbinic explication and legal expression, we can discover that both elements are reflected in the text, and we can discern why various moments in the narrative and its legal expression display different emphases.

Let us recapitulate: The characteristic Orthodox (“yeshivish”) interpretation of the exodus and, in effect, of the place of Passover in the Jewish calendar privileges God’s statement to Moses (in the spirit of Rashi) that the “sign” of his mission is that he will bring the people to “this mountain,” where they will serve God. Thus, Sinai becomes the ultimate meaning of Israel’s liberation. But God did not say this to Abraham, at least not explicitly. Yes, he initiated a covenant with Abraham; yes, the covenant stipulates exile and oppression; yes, it promises a return to the land of Israel. But there is nothing in Genesis or the early chapters of Exodus about God’s giving Abraham’s descendants his law, nothing about the Jews’ becoming a “kingdom of priests and a holy people,” as God proclaims when they arrive at Sinai and prepare for revelation in Exodus 19.

Having been commissioned to lead the people out of bondage, Moses returns to his brothers in Egypt. He tells them that God knows their sufferings and will fulfill his covenant with the ­patriarchs. He tells them, and he tells Pharaoh, to let the people go so that they may offer sacrifices in the desert. He does not yet tell the people that in the desert they will be introduced to a ­radically new religious commitment grounded in faithfulness to the covenant. In other words, if all we had before us were the words God communicated to the people through Moses, even if these words were supplemented by what God told Abraham about exile, oppression, and salvation, we would have heard much about the oppression and the toil from which God would rescue us, and we would know the promise of being restored to the land of Israel. We would have heard nothing binding the exodus to the giving of the law.

In other words, those who hold to the political interpretation of Passover are not out of accord with the Bible as it unfolds. The people whom Moses addresses are not told to expect their ultimate rendezvous with the commanding God of Sinai, of which God informed Moses when he was chosen for his mission. They have not yet been advised of the final goal of the divine plan. If, following the spirit of Rashi’s commentary and with it so much of fundamental Jewish theological insight, we embrace the theonomic emphasis, we would want to explain why the narrative ­unfolds as it does. Why does Moses not disclose to the enslaved people to whom he was sent the goal of receiving the Torah?

Let me propose a way of thinking that retains Judaism’s elevation of law while also recognizing the centrality of non-legal, liberationist themes in Genesis and Exodus. We will start from a discussion that focuses on God’s plan as reflected in these portions of the Torah, and we will then look at the exodus and its aftermath from an overlapping perspective, that of the self-understanding of the Israelites during the first stages of their liberation.

Let’s go back to the centrality of Torah, the divine revealed law, in Jewish practice and study. As we have seen, this element is not present in explicit form in Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus. All the same, because commitment to the law is the core of traditional Jewish life, from time immemorial it has been natural for Jewish writers to retroject the hegemony of law ­into the earliest part of the biblical narrative. Some rabbinic sources depict the patriarchs of Genesis, from Abraham down, as engaged in the scrupulous observance of the Torah’s commandments. How, the traditionalist exclaims, could it have been ­otherwise?

The same orientation is found, with variations, in non-rabbinic works of the Second Temple period, the final centuries before the Common Era. The pseudepigraphic book of Jubilees, for example, preserved primarily through Christian transmission and canonized by the Ethiopian Orthodox church, exhibits prominent Genesis figures establishing Jewish practices that the Bible itself first introduces as part of the Sinai revelation. To be sure, rabbinic sources do not fully equate the patriarchs’ conduct with the later Sinaitic command. One rabbinic statement speaks of Abraham as fulfilling the Torah on his own, rather than in response to divine revelation. In later Jewish thought on this theme, there is a similar sense that patriarchal faithfulness to the Torah was voluntary rather than divinely compelled. Only at Sinai does the law become compulsory.

The Emergence of Ethical Man, by my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, attends to the development of ethics from Abraham to Moses and does so through a discussion of Genesis and Exodus, with judicious use of rabbinic commentary. Both Abraham and Moses are lonely figures who flee the regimented idolatrous advanced cultures of their time (Mesopotamia and Egypt). Yet there are crucial points of contrast. Abraham never resists God’s will for him, even at the Akedah, when he is called upon to sacrifice his son Isaac. Isaac and Jacob likewise seem to live in harmony with the divine commands addressed to them. Moses, by contrast, does not want to return to Egypt, and he resists his calling to lead the people out of bondage. In certain respects, writes Rabbi Soloveitchik, Abraham is closer to God than Moses. The ethical and religious orientation of the Genesis patriarchs is thus different from that of Moses, the transmitter of the Torah at Sinai. The Anglican scholar Walter Moberly has spoken of Genesis as “the Old Testament of the Old Testament,” with the stories of the patriarchs serving as a prologue to the law. His formulation may be an apt characterization of the contrast just outlined.

The ethos of Sinai is one of commandment and obedience. The ethos of Genesis, by contrast, is spontaneous; it does not depict the conflict of divine commands and sometimes reluctant responses. One can see, therefore, a certain pedagogical logic in the biblical sequence. The lack of emphasis on the giving of the law in the earlier stages of the narrative is not accidental. God, as it were, does not reveal to the entire people, so early in their liberation, the full plan culminating in the Sinai covenant. First comes liberation from Egypt and the establishment of a relationship between God and Israel; then comes the definition of that relationship as one of faithfulness to his law. Such a reading is grounded in God’s plan for Israel. Though Sinai is the ultimate destination, God ordains the transition from Pharaoh’s house of bondage to Sinai’s divine servitude. The narratives of Genesis–Exodus accommodate the unfolding of a gradual plan.

We observe the progression from slavery to liberation and only then to divine law also in the state of the liberated Israelite slaves. Traditionalist as well as liberal or secular Jews observe that the memory of slavery in Egypt is a powerful source of ethical motivation. It makes Jews responsive to various commandments mandating compassion. Michael Walzer is not the only scholar to remark on the unusual fact that most nations emerging from subjugation to freedom prefer to downplay their undignified origins, whereas the Torah harks back to the Egyptian bondage. Much of the Torah’s social legislation on behalf of the widow, orphan, sojourner, and downtrodden is tied explicitly to that history: You are charged to be compassionate, “for you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” Commemoration of slavery thus becomes the ground of honorable moral sensitivity, rather than a badge of shame.

This is true, yet it requires qualification. In fact, the laws that refer to Israelites as slaves in Egypt appear in the book of Deuteronomy, which contains Moses’s address to the children of the emancipated slaves at the end of his life, after the forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness. Some commandments in the earlier books of the Torah, such as Exodus, mention Egypt, but none of them refers to slavery. In these passages, the Torah enjoins compassion because the Israelites were “sojourners” in the land of Egypt. To take the best-known example: In the Ten Commandments given at Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 20, the Sabbath commemorates that God created on six days and rested on the seventh; only in the version Moses repeats in Deuteronomy 5 is the Sabbath commanded “because you were slaves in the land of Egypt.” The memory of slavery may foster virtue, but it does not do so immediately upon liberation. The liberated slaves, pace Rabbi Kook’s discussion, may not have been enthusiastic about the prospect of exchanging Pharaoh’s yoke for that of God.

What the standard social-political reading of the exodus leaves out is not only the transcendent experience of ­Sinai. The social-political reading also fails to confess that liberation alone, without the transcendent dimension, does not ennoble or sensitize one to the plight of others. The slaves whom Moses encounters at the beginning of his mission are not yet prepared for the heroic, all-encompassing, and commanding voice of Sinai. In the first days and years that follow Sinai, they may be prepared to respond to the divine reminder, in the laws of Exodus, that they were sojourners in Egypt—but they are not yet able to integrate into their moral identity the degradation of having been enslaved. That integration is accomplished forty years later, when Moses speaks to their children in Deuteronomy.

In the narrative of Genesis–Exodus, the Torah tells a story of liberation, but the meaning of that story is completed only after Sinai. The Jews’ divinely ordained vocation is bestowed through the giving of the Law at Sinai, yet it requires fulfillment, which comes afterwards. In retrospect, slavery and liberation appear as way stations on the road to the service of God. The exodus from Egypt is a march to Sinai. Again, there is a pedagogical wisdom in operation, a divinely orchestrated gradualism that accommodates human frailty. From the viewpoint of the enslaved Israelites to whom Moses speaks at the beginning of Exodus, the dream of freedom from enslavement and restoration to their land suffices. The Israelites may welcome freedom, but having attained it, they may not be eager to accept the Torah. They might shrink from the One who redeemed them from bondage and who now imposes himself upon them as their benevolent but terribly demanding master. Before they can undertake the absoluteness of divine service and exult in it, God must confront them at the mountain and much else must occur. The slaves who have just left Egypt can identify with their status as strangers in Egypt. Only the next generation, the generation of Deuteronomy, is ready to be inspired and motivated by the recollection of their original enslavement in all its bitterness, as the countless generations are who have celebrated Passover for millennia since.

The Dayyenu litany (“Had God only done X and not done Y, it would have sufficed for us”) is one of the most popular melodies of the Seder night. This idea—that had God taken us out of Egypt and not given us the Torah, it would have sufficed—may well capture the mood of the just liberated slave, happy to be free at last. The strictly Orthodox believer might be tempted to demur: “If God had not given us the Torah, it would not have been enough for us.” Such an “emendation” would not be an improvement. True, it would bring to the fore the vital importance of commitment to God’s law, which contemporary culture is sadly lacking. But it would also risk downplaying the significance of social and political redemption, which is part of the exodus experience and prominent in the story told in Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus.

The liberal Jewish emphasis on political liberation may be one-sided, but it is not entirely wrongheaded. An exclusively theonomic version of Passover, eyes fixed on Sinai and overlooking or marginalizing the literary structure of the Torah’s deferral of Israel’s highest vocation, likewise misses a crucial psychological insight. Of course we must do justice to and, if necessary, reemphasize the element of mundane liberation in the Torah’s story of the exodus—after all, political freedom has its place and its value. But as liberated slaves, we must also appreciate the enormous difficulty of transforming a nation from abject slaves into servants of God.

The hard truth is that liberation from slavery does not automatically lead the typical survivor to offer to up his freedom to God. The former slave wants freedom and dignity and rest, not the bold, all-consuming adventure of Sinai. The slave has suffered. But to endure pain and to be rescued from it are not inherently ennobling. The former slave may want to conceal from himself, as from others, the stigma of his degradation. He may wish to think of it as an unpleasant “sojourn” in Egypt, rather than enslavement. Why exhume the nightmare of history and make it the foundation and motivation for an idealistic ethic of compassion and an exacting life of sanctifying obedience to God’s command?

The Torah records God’s commands but also his education of the people, an education that takes into account their background. In the book of Exodus, in the immediate aftermath of liberation, the Torah wisely reminds the people that they were “sojourners” in the land of Egypt and avoids the loaded word “slaves.” Then, in Deuteronomy, after forty years in the wilderness and after those who left Egypt have been replaced by the next generation, Moses can ground God’s commandments in the memory of slavery and redemption.

The Seder is an occasion for thanksgiving. It closes with the cry “Next year in Jerusalem,” expressing our yearning for a redemption that is national and universal, mundane and spiritual. It is not defined as an occasion for self-­examination. Yet the line between historical salvation and self-searching is not clear-cut. If we would be liberated from physical and spiritual servitude and brought to the service of God, we cannot do without the kind of insight provided by the exodus story in all its ­complexity.

Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University.

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