Pesach (Passover) negates the idea that the ultimate purpose of being Jewish can be realized by an individual’s “leap of faith” or by fulfilling the commandments at Sinai.
The conventional notion of religion as private faith and good works is incompatible with the message of Passover, which reminds me that I must first identify with my people’s struggle for freedom and security before I can pledge covenantal allegiance to God at Sinai. We begin the annual pilgrimage of Jewish self-understanding by recollecting and identifying with the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt. We begin by retelling the story of our struggle for liberation: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt”—with the emphasis on the fact that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.
Empathy and solidarity with the political, social, and economic conditions of the Jewish people are necessary conditions for any “leap of faith” or spiritual journey within Judaism. We do not approach the sacred moment of the Sinai revelation as individuals. We hear the word of God and receive the Ten Commandments as “we.” Heresy in Judaism is separating oneself from the collective experience of the Jewish people. The “wicked son” of the Passover Haggadah is he who addresses other Jews as “you” (“you and not him”). Jewish heresy is an existential state of excluding oneself from the destiny of the Jewish people.
Passover thus begins the yearly celebration of our collective memory by situating the individual within the historic drama of the Jewish people.
While identification with the suffering in Egypt is necessary for developing a collective consciousness, the memory of suffering is not in itself constitutive of Jewish identity. Although our oppression in Egypt could have become the predominant motif of our collective identity, the tradition took the experience of victimization and transformed it into a moral impulse.
At Sinai, the memory of Egypt becomes a compelling reason for aspiring to the collective ideals of justice and love and becoming a holy people. “And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19; see Exod. 23:9, Lev. 19:34, Lev. 24:17). At Sinai, we are challenged by God to take responsibility for our daily lives and to aspire to the freedom of being claimed by a normative vision of life.
Freedom involves the capacity for self-transcendence, for being claimed by what is other than myself. For Jews, the law is not a source of guilt, as the Christian apostle Paul claimed. We are not paralyzed by the elaborate structure of halakha and mitzvot. On the contrary, the Law (our Torah) gave us a sense of personal dignity—the dignity of beings accountable before God.
By appropriating the memory of Passover, I learn that I can never forget Auschwitz or be indifferent to any manifestation of anti-Semitism in the world. Yet, no matter how powerful and compelling the experience of the Holocaust is for Jews today, we must not define ourselves as victims but must move from Auschwitz to Jerusalem. Like the movement from Egypt to Sinai, we must learn to celebrate our people’s yearning to build a new future by taking responsibility for our lives as individuals, as a people, and as a country.
Our return to Israel as a sovereign nation can be understood figuratively as a reenactment of the drama of Sinai, where we learned not to define ourselves as victims but to take responsibility for how we lived. In the Land of Israel, the voice of Sinai speaks to Jews, holding them accountable for all aspects of their lives.
This article is excerpted from Rabbi Prof. David Hartman’s essay in I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. © 2004 Dr. Judea and Ruth Pearl. Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing . The book is available for purchase in the USA through Jewish Lights Publishing and in Israel through Gefen Publishing .