I recently participated in an evening of learning at a local Lutheran church where a local imam and I were asked to discuss the ways our respective faiths were most often misunderstood. This church and their pastor sought to spend time during Lent learning about other faiths in order to help strengthen their own faith. During the question and answer period, a member of the church asked if I thought that the story of the Israelite exodus from Egyptian slavery had been misunderstood.
It was an insightful question — one that compels me to think more deeply about the Exodus and our celebration of Pesach. We’ve just gathered around Seder tables to once again remember going out from Egyptian slavery. There is little doubt that every Seder differed in some way, great or small, from other Seders taking place those nights.
One of the great benefits Seders being held primarily at home is that they yield more creativity and variation than many other synagogue-based Jewish rituals. That said, I worry that the narrative told around the table often emphasizes the freedom from slavery, the liberation from the shackles of Pharaoh, without posing the question: “What follows freedom?”
A side note. Headlines in recent months and years have been dominated by the story of one regime after another being toppled in North Africa, the Middle East and in other parts of the world as well. In virtually every example, it is a strong-man or dictator who has ruled by fear and held on to power despite the wishes of his people who yearn to breathe free. The downfall of a despot is a cause for celebration, to be sure.
Without reading too much into current events, I have to say that while approaching Passover, the image in my head is of Moses and Aaron facing down Pharaoh, declaring: “Thus says the Lord, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go that they may worship Me in the wilderness!” In the ancient case of Pharaoh over Egypt and in the modern cases around the world, the refusal of the tyrant to listen to the voice of the people brings destruction (often undeserved suffering of the general population) and ultimately downfall.
But an additional aspect should also be considered. The freedom our ancestors sought from the rule of Pharaoh was not intended to be a freedom from responsibility. The opposite is true. Our ancestors went from servitude to Pharaoh to being in covenant with God — being partners with mutual responsibility towards the ethical system embodied by the Torah they would receive 50 days later at Mount Sinai.
We can hope and pray that the people who have and will throw off the rule of tyrants around the world today will see it as an opportunity to take control of their future with the principle of ethical responsibility as their first aspiration. Rabbi Allen Maller writes: “Freedom without commitment leads to social breakdown and anarchy in our society and self-centeredness and egoism in our personal lives. We cannot value freedom without valuing commitment and duty even more.”
What is the greatest misunderstanding of the Exouds story? The false belief that it concludes with the physical liberation from slavery to Pharaoh.
Wishing you a zissen (sweet) and meaningful Passover!
Rabbi Craig Axler is spiritual leader of Temple Isaiah in Fulton.