The endless repetition of discovering liberty

Essay: In Jewish thought, freedom comes side by side with new shackles

Scapegoat 311 (photo credit: William Holman Hunt)
Scapegoat 311
(photo credit: William Holman Hunt)
In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” This phrase from the Haggada expresses the most significant concept of the Pessah holiday. Liberty is not something we are naturally granted, but something we need to aspire to attain. This concept of liberty, a goal that must be achieved, is expressed emphatically in the first of the Ten Commandments. The God of Israel is defined there not as the God of creation but as the God who brought us out of Egypt.
But delivering us from “a house of slavery” was not the end of it; it was the long walk through the desert, and all the events that journey entailed, which constitute one great process leading to liberty. The national identity and culture of those who left Egypt is defined by the act of Exodus, but also by the commandments which followed – the remaining nine. That is, freedom comes side by side with new shackles, and the two cannot be separated. Thus was born, in Jewish culture, the original linkage between liberty and morality, a combination of contrasts which embodies our unique contribution to Western society.
This interweaving of apparent contradictions gave the West its moral dynamism. The ambition to set the world aright and a plethora of messianic beliefs created an endless motion in Western culture: an insatiable demand for tikkun olam – making the world a better place. This has also brought the world some attempts at tikkun, in the 20th century, that turned out to be monstrous. But this typically Western characteristic is deeply embedded in Jewish thought and is one of its greatest contributions to world culture. Wooing believers, the monotheistic religions born later in history from the loins of the religion of the Hebrews tried to marginalize the duty and emphasize the promise. And perhaps this is why they succeeded in taking over the four corners of the Earth. But the duty remains: a constant yearning for liberty and morality side by side.
The second profound notion expressed in the phrase is, of course, its emphasis on the individual. “A person is obligated,” that is: any person. And again, “to regard himself [emphasizing his own self] as if he had come out,” etc. The entire Haggada, including, at times, its tedious specificity of detail, throws in stark relief the importance of the individual, the uncompromising individualism of the struggle for freedom. That is, any person, in every generation, whether wise, wicked, a simpleton or one who does not know how to ask, must walk the long journey of Exodus toward liberty, traversing the desert of their life to attain it. No person is exempt. Every year we are demanded to remember and remind ourselves of this. And the journey, of course, includes all sorts of fights and tribulations.
The Haggada is a text telling us life is like a desert we walk through. Side by side with the national collective identity forged at Mount Sinai there is a strong emphasis on the individual and his own personal duties. And thus, year after year, we speak about the exodus from Egypt not as an achievement of the past but as a metaphor and a path to the future. As the story (and meal) takes us from early evening to late night, strife and difficulty slowly overshadow the joys of success. And lest we forget this age-old truth from one Pessah to the next, the Seder