Passover is Jewish Independence Day: Revelation, not revolution

For Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the Exodus from Egypt is a universal drama pivoted upon values.

 RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS speaks at TED2017 — The Future You. (photo credit: TED/Flickr)
RABBI LORD JONATHAN SACKS speaks at TED2017 — The Future You.
(photo credit: TED/Flickr)

On this night we were chosen to inspire the world to monotheism and to moral conscience. Passover is our Independence Day, the genesis of our nation and the launch of our historic mission. 

Sadly, during our long and bleak exile, this mission was suppressed. Exile banished us to margins of society, and we lived as an ostracized and persecuted nation of victims. Valiantly, we withdrew to a deep inner world of eternity, studying God’s will, loyally submitting to His commandments, and building robust Jewish communities across the globe. For two thousand years, our influence upon humanity was muted and we lived entirely within ourselves. 

Sadly, because of this historical isolation, we lost our universal voice, as consciousness of our universal mission became clouded. Even during this long exile, there were historical pockets during which we influenced the general society. 

During the Jewish Golden Era in Spain (roughly 950-1400) and more recently in 19th and early 20th century Western Europe, Jews shaped their host societies, achieving prominence in commerce, politics, science, philosophy and culture. 

Yet, even during these universalist moments, we didn’t influence society with our Jewish values. We spearheaded general societal progress, but didn’t directly inspirit Jewish values. We helped society draft its story but it wasn’t our distinctly Jewish story.

Our Lost Voice 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks revived our lost voice, reminding us that our story is their story. We weren’t just meant to spearhead technological and cultural change, but to inspire the world through Jewish values. He reminded us that our Jewish ideals carved out the modern world of democracy, human dignity, family and social equality.

His writings about Passover, in particular, highlight our universalist mission, and his profound ideas and elegant articulation continue to deeply impact my own Passover experience.

As much as I identify with his overall message, I disagree with his framing of the exodus story. My respectful disagreement isn’t meant to detract from his overall message about our universal Jewish mission, but rather to question his perspective upon the exodus.

Starting a Revolution

For Rabbi Sacks, the exodus from Egypt is a universal drama pivoted upon values and ideals common to all of humanity. The exodus was a political revolution, showcasing a new socio-political model for humanity. Ancient society was oppressive and exploitative, leaving little room for personal freedom or for personal economic advance. The gods clearly favored established rulers who wielded unlimited power and preserved the rigid order of society. 

These societies of might and power held little regard for rights of the weak and of the vulnerable. Wealth was monopolized by a limited few, with much of society living on the brink of starvation. Strangers were distrusted as aliens, unentitled to rights or citizenship. These were cold, brutal and merciless societies.

To Rabbi Sacks, our liberation from Egypt introduced a new social paradigm to human history. He cites the historian, Paul Johnson, who wrote that the Jews introduced society to the notions of “equality before the law... the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person... individual conscience and personal redemption... collective conscience and social responsibility... and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind.”

For Rabbi Sacks, on Passover, God intervened on behalf of the weak and the defenseless, and urged these former victims to craft a more egalitarian and compassionate society. The nation we fashioned would serve as a social microcosm for humanity, offering them horizons of morality. The exodus was the first and perhaps the greatest political revolution in history. It didn’t merely overturn the established political order, but distilled a new social fabric and a new vision of God.

For Rabbi Sacks, our story is their story and, to a degree, their story is our story. Our story is embedded within humanity’s endless pursuit of political liberty, economic freedom and social equality.

Revolution or Revelation?

In many ways, I completely agree that part of our story is their story, but our story contains numerous other chapters that aren’t related to their story. The exodus was not a social revolution but a night of covenant and of national selection. God descended into history, reenacting an ancient covenant that had been in hibernation for two centuries and fulfilling an ancient promise to our ancestors. 

On this night, God once again chose us as His people, selecting us to receive His eternal Torah and to style our lives based on His will. On this magical night, we were chosen to travel to the land of God and to build a Temple of ritual and divine encounter. 

This is the night of Jewish destiny, of the grand mission to bring God into human realm through study, ritual, commandment, moral behavior and settlement of the land of Israel. Passover is not a night of social revolution but of ritual and religion.

Of course, an additional method of bringing God into our world is by constructing an ethical social model for others to follow. However, this social agenda isn’t the only or even the primary feature of our redemption or of the national mission launched on that night. This night we were called to the mountain of the divine. This night we were called to eternity and not just to social equality. This night we were called to heaven and not just to a city on the hill. This night was one of revelation not revolution.

Part of History?

To reinforce his universalization of the exodus, Rabbi Sacks writes, “we do no justice to the originality of Israel’s faith, if we seek to remove it from history altogether, for it was precisely in and through history that Israel sensed the providence of God.” Exodus cannot be severed from history, because it was part of a larger social evolution.

Once again, I am not sure I agree. The exodus resurrected an eternal covenant between God and his people, which lies beyond this earth and beyond human history. Of course, the revival of this covenant occurred at a particular historical juncture and influenced the broader trajectory of human experience. 

At its root though, Passover lies beyond history. It is a night of Shir Hashirim and of a love, like no other: love between God and his precious but sometimes errant people, who He took as His wife. It is not a night of political theory or of social dynamics, it is a night of a marriage in heaven.

Rabbi Sacks restored an important Jewish voice, which had vanished for centuries. As he writes, “Jewish religious imagination, still suffering the effects of trauma and dislocation, has not yet recovered its poise, scope, intellectual breadth or prophetic depth.” In our generation, Rabbi Sacks pioneered the rediscovery of that intellectual breadth and prophetic depth. I hope that others, many of whom he inspired and continues to inspire, will help us fully recover that voice.

He is correct, that our mission for humanity, which began the night of Passover, forever changed history. However, Passover was not a universal revolution, but a moment of national revelation. The march of social progress wasn’t launched on that evening; the march to the Promised Land was. 

Amid the dark nightmarish world of Egypt and unimaginable suffering, God appeared to us affirming His love and His loyalty. Revelation not revolution. ❖

The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.