Pesach and Israel: A tale of two realities?

Pesach reminds us of God's activism not merely as the antidote to our helplessness but as a paradigm to be emulated.

Seder plate 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Seder plate 311
(photo credit: courtesy)

The dramatic story of the Exodus from Egypt involves many players: the Childrenof Israel, the Egyptians, Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh. There is, however, onlyone hero: God. God is the one who brought us down to Egypt, ostensibly as astaging area for the Jewish people whose receipt of their Promised Land was puton hold until the sins of the Canaanite nations reached a divinely calculated tippingpoint to justify God's expulsion of them (Genesis 15:16). God is also the soleplayer in the redemption; the role of the Children of Israel is to merely beborn as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to cry forth out ofthe suffering of slavery and awaken God to remember God's covenant (Exodus2:23-25).

It is a story most aptly summarized by the Biblical verse, "TheLord shall do battle for you, and you, you shall keep still." (Exodus14:14) The centrality of God in this story is carried forth in the PesachHaggadah in the opening statement of the retelling of the story, "We wereslaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God took us out from there with amighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One, Blessed Be God, hadnot taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children, and our children'schildren, would still be enslaved to the Pharaohs in Egypt."

The story of Egypt depicts a vision of history in which God is the soleor primary force and we but passive bystanders whose job it is to watch,remember, and then obey the word of our all-powerful and redeeming God. "Iam the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house ofbondage. You shall have no other gods besides me." (Exodus 20:2-3) If wewant to change our destiny, it is to the God who shapes history that we mustturn our eyes and pray. "Pour out your wrath upon the nations who do notknow You, and upon the kingdoms who do not invoke Your name, for they havedevoured Jacob and laid waste to his dwelling." (Haggadah)

One of the great paradoxes of the Egypt story, however, is that the samestory which spawns a religious vision of human passivity in the realm of historygenerates a religious obligation of extreme activism in the social sphere."For you were slaves in the Land of Egypt" does not merely serve todirect our eyes to the God in heaven who granted us freedom, but also serves asthe foundation for obligating us to treat the poor, the stranger, and the slavewith equity, righteousness, and kindness. We are obligated to not merelyremember God's salvation and kindness but the experience of powerlessness anddegradation which preceded it, and instead of celebrating the powerlessness, weare commanded to recalibrate our consciousness to the reality of freedom and totake responsibility for the society in which we live. We are obligated toremember God's activism not merely as the antidote to our helplessness inconfronting the forces of history but as a paradigm to be emulated when weconfront injustice in ours.

Pesach thus tells a complex story. On the one hand, it depicts God asthe heroic figure, and on the other obligates us to become such a figure.

The essence of the Zionist revolution and the new Jewish ideology thatit gifted to Jewish life is an attempt to resolve this complexity. Zionism isnot merely a movement of Jewish national sovereignty, but a movement of Jewishideas which declared war on the Pesach idea that when it comes to history weJews have only one hero, only one place to turn our eyes – God. Zionism isabout harnessing the activism which Jews directed within their community to theworld outside our community, outside the ghetto walls.

We the champions of the downtrodden within our midst must also take upand fight against the downtroddenness which characterized our status in theworld.

We were not going to wait for God to pour forth God's wrath. We were nolonger going to wait for a second coming of the Egypt story, and instead wewere to strive to become masters of our own fate and destiny. For the Zionistand for the Jews of power and dignity which it spawned worldwide, the Pesachstory has become less of a model for the present and more a nostalgic story ofour past. We do not merely celebrate our freedom from Egypt but our freedomfrom the Egypt story and the religious personality that it shapes andenvisions.

We must take great care, however, not to liberate ourselves completelyfrom the Egypt story. We are indeed a free, sovereign people who takeresponsibility for our national destiny. We make a profound error, however, whenwe envision the goals of Jewish sovereignty merely in terms of shaping andprotecting Jewish life within the arena of history, when we limit the purposeof Israel to defending Jews against the Pharaohs and enemies who constantlyarise against us.

The story of Egypt obligated us to be sovereign over our society evenwhen we could not be sovereign in history. Now that we are capable of redeemingand protecting ourselves, it would be tragic and indeed ironic if we forgotthat we were slaves in Egypt and that the duty of freedom is to create asociety of justice, justice for our people and justice for all who live in ourmidst. It is relatively easy for a people who were saved by an other, toremember that there but for the gift of God go I, and to identify with those ofa similar status and embrace a social activist spirit in defense of the needyand downtrodden. It is more difficult for a people who marshaled their ownforce and genius to build a powerful and vibrant society to avoid the hubriswhich it can produce, an arrogance which can make one blind to those lesssuccessful, to those who could not on their own redeem themselves.

If the story of modern Israel is the antidote to the first part of thestory of Egypt, the story of Jewish powerlessness in the face of our foes, thenthe second part of the story of Egypt, "And remember that you were slavesin the Land of Egypt," is the antidote to the hubris of power which thestory of Israel can generate. We are indeed free from the first story, but thesecond is more relevant than ever and provides a blueprint for the essentialchallenges of Israel in the years to come.