Passover: Liberating God, Jews and Judaism

Passover is a time not just to commemorate an ancient historical event of national Jewish liberation, but also to reflect on the nature of God and the kind of allegiance that God continues to demand.

April 1, 2015 21:44

Moses. (photo credit: INGIMAGE)


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Passover is a time not just to commemorate an ancient historical event of national Jewish liberation, but also to reflect on the nature of God and the kind of allegiance that God continues to demand. After all the very first of what has come to be known as the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt,” inextricably ties that deity to the event Jews are about to celebrate.

One of the overarching motifs of rabbinic interpretation focusing on this first of the Ten Commandments is that no matter how fragmented the world appears, all can be traced to the One, the source of all being and existence.

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Discord, rather than harmony, seems to be the order of the day, where the chaos of natural disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, disease, drought, or, as witnessed recently, Israeli elections, compete with the majesty of a sunset or a polar glacier for our sense of who is truly in charge. Thus, the ancient rabbis justify the need for this seemingly superfluous divine introduction – “for at the Sea He appeared as a mighty warrior, and at Sinai as a scribe who teaches Torah, and then again in the times of Solomon as a naïve youth, while during the period of Daniel as an old man, therefore God dispels any possible confusion raised by these multiple identities with a resounding ‘I’– I am the same one who appeared at the sea and at Sinai, I am the Lord your God.”

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The “I” dispels any appearance of fragmentation caused by our most disparate and visceral experiences of the world.

However, the profound superiority of this “I” over its pagan counterparts lies in its ethical repercussions as well as its theological implications. In their microscopic attention to this first commandment, the rabbis make the “I” resonate with humanity’s means of achieving a viable coexistence. The Hebrew term for “I am” (anochi) begins with an aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

The very first letter of the first word in the Torah, famously (but perhaps incorrectly) translated as “In the beginning” (bereshit), commences with a beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The rabbis seize an opportunity to mine the treasures of their foundational text even before the opening word has been read.

Why, they ask, does not the beginning start with the beginning? What motivated the divine Author to pass over the aleph and favor the beth with the commencement of the Torah and the origin of the world? Before the divine pen was put to parchment, each of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, beginning with the last, vied for the privilege, and each in turn was rebuffed until it was conferred on the beth, the second letter. In return for the aleph’s resigned silence throughout the other characters’ arrogant jockeying for esteem God granted it the lead position in the Ten Commandments.

Implicit then in the “I” of a supremely overwhelming Presence is the humility that allows for acceptance and recognition of others. Both the words Adam and “one” (echad) also begin with aleph, and so the modesty of the aleph is drawn into these two terms to convey a crucial lesson – humankind stands or falls on the acknowledgment of another’s space, while oneness is the inevitable consequence of the individual’s ability to limit itself so that others can share the same ground. Perhaps the aleph modeled its behavior on what Kabbalah describes as God’s own act of self-sacrifice to make way for the creation.

How could the creation take place if God’s pervasive presence occupies all of space? Sixteenth-century Jewish mystics such as the great Isaac Luria attributed the possibility of the universe to a primordial act of divine self-contraction and withdrawal (tzimtzum) leaving space for the world to inhabit. The “I” of the first commandment, which demands belief, loyalty and obedience, is also the “I” that limits itself so that its subjects can enjoy existential autonomy.

As Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik observes, the sacred duty to imitate God would include an ethical mirroring of this divine contraction allowing others to enter a space that so often is occupied exclusively by an “I.”

After introducing herself as “I am the Lord your God,” God does not, as one might expect, go on to describe herself by the dogmatic theological characterizations that have become so commonplace in our religious language, such as omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, or even for that matter unitary. He reveals himself primarily as the one who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. His existence is tied inextricably to a historical intervention of national liberation. Her subsequent commandments are sanctioned not simply by the unfettered power he yields, for that could assert itself in any arbitrary show of brute force, but His authority flows from the moral exercise of that infinite power.

The strength of this deity’s moral authority is further deepened by the common rabbinic motif of God actually suffering, going into exile, or being imprisoned along with his people, which notably emerges in this first commandment by a philological twist, reading it radically as “I am the Lord your God who took myself out of Egypt” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 4:3). Read in this way, the commandment that commences the collective revelation at Sinai harkens back to the personal revelation granted Moses at the burning bush that portends Sinai, both by its location – Horeb, the mountain of God (Exodus 3:1) – and by its linguistic assonance (Sinai/Seneh). Why, R. Joshua asks, does God choose to lower himself from the heavenly heights and appear from within a lowly thorn bush? It is to teach us that as long as His people suffers, He suffers, and as long as they are in captivity, He shall likewise remain so.”

What is so provocative, however, about this portrait of an empathetic God is not what it says about God, but what it demands of man. The moral crisis is so desperate that God himself is in need of liberation, urgently calling for human activism rather than prayer. There is no room for quietism, contemplative asceticism, or any form of retreat from redressing the injustice at hand. Moses merits this spectacular epiphany, not because of his withdrawal to the silence of the desert, or, in modern terms, to the study halls of the yeshivah, but because he resorted to murder, the most extreme form of violence, when confronted with the most extreme form of human oppression.

This is the man whom God chose to release himself from his own shackles, and this is what the first commandment’s “who took you out of Egypt” recollects in its address to the people as a whole. God’s name revealed to Moses at the bush of “I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14) conveys, not a personal appellation, but a state of being that is ever in flux. Rashi (d. 1105), one of the greatest of all Jewish interpreters, expands this strange formulation to an eternal declaration of allegiance – “As I am with you in this catastrophe I shall be with you in all future times of oppression.”

The Tetragrammaton (YHWH), then, announced in the first commandment, derived from the same verb “to be,” sets the standard of what it means to “be,” to exist. To be is to be outraged by injustice, to join ranks with the oppressed, and ultimately to vanquish the oppressor.

The commandment is not satisfied with recalling just “the land of Egypt,” the foreign country in which they were trapped, but refines it further as “the house of slavery.” The Israelites, and all future subjects of this commandment, must be reminded of a state of being they in particular had been reduced to, and that always looms as a danger in any oppressive regime. Release from “the land of Egypt” covers only one stage in the process of liberation – that of rescuing a national identity that has been suppressed and submerged by the dominant culture. God helps Israel emerge from a political demography that consisted only of Egypt and the nameless minions that were compelled to serve Egypt.

But there is another stage to liberation, signified by the phrase “house of slavery,” which must remedy the scarred psyche of those who have been subjugated for so long. The term “house” connotes a structure that is fixed and permanent – the Israelites, in other words, were not only enslaved, but were existentially transformed into slaves, which accounts for why there was no substantive resistance or uprising until Moses, a child of the upper class, arrived on the scene.

If, according to some Jewish thinkers, what distinguishes humankind from all other species is the ability to exercise freedom of choice (rather than intellect or speech), then the Egyptian straitjacketing of the Israelites, inducing a wholly controlled existence, was an attack on their very humanity. It was a largely successful concerted effort to remove the image of God from other human beings.

The claustrophobic hopelessness of this predicament is captured by Gersonides’ (d. 1344) explanation of “house of slavery” as a house that has been virtually sealed airtight with no crack or crevice that could offer even a glimmer of escape. The answer to the profound question posed by Judah Halevi, the author of the Kuzari, of why the first commandment refers to the God the Liberator rather than God the Creator becomes clear. Creation is integral to the commandment’s formulation, for it warns that what God has ideally worked into nature at the beginning, such as the image of God, is precariously vulnerable to the actions of men. The ultimate verse of the first creation account concludes with a syntactically difficult description of God ceasing (or resting) “from all the work of creation that he had done” (Genesis 2:3), which literally translates as “all his work that God created to do.”

Abraham ibn Ezra smooths out the sentence by inserting man as the subject of the final verb “to do.” God completed his task, from which point onward it is humanity’s responsibility “to do,” to create, to preserve the creation God gifted to it. The constraint of a “house of slavery,” restricts the powers of those confined within it “to do.” It therefore violates the raison d’être of the creation itself, where there was a changing of the guard from God to humanity. From that point forward it is the human being who must continue the “doing” by exercising the image of God with which he and she were created.

That freedom compelled by the first commandment strikingly extends further to the kind of creativity that guaranteed the continued survival of Judaism.

The Ten Commandments are the very first divine communications to be transcribed. It is not merely the author that is divine, but also the writing surface, the letters and the transcription itself – “The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing, incised upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). However, it would be an error to identify this originating legislative document with the proverbial “etched in stone,” conveying static and fixed senses of rigidity and inflexibility. Though the divine word at Sinai reaches out to eternity, the rabbis daringly re-vowelize the singular word for “incised” (charut) to render it “freedom” (cherut) – “Don’t read it incised but rather freedom, for only he who exerts himself in the study of Torah is truly free.”

Freedom is attained in the study of God’s text precisely because the text itself is not “written in stone” but speaks only through those who engage it, interpret it and adapt it. The tablets bearing the Ten Commandments are themselves paradigmatic of the entire rabbinic project that, though bound by a text, is not enslaved to it. How appropriate it is then that the tablets, as a microcosmic Torah, whose very substance represents existential freedom, should commence with an “I” who released others from the “house of slavery,” who granted that existential and political liberty about to be reenacted on Passover.

The author is Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada.

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