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Freedom: The Forgotten Obligation

We must remember that our freedom commits us not only toward God, but toward one another as well

Of all the foundational stories of the Jewish tradition, the one we tell on Seder night is perhaps the most important. It is the only one which must be told and retold, passed down the generations, kept alive as the most vivid and tangible of memories. "In every generation every person must see himself as if he went out of Egypt." The story of the Exodus must be firmly etched in the collective memory of the Jewish people – and in the personal consciousness of each and every Jew. What is it about this story which requires such internalization? Or, to paraphrase the opening question of Seder night, why is this story different from all others?
The answer lies in the pivotal role of the Exodus in constituting the Jewish religion. The Sinaitic revelation and the wandering in the desert, the conquering of the land and the building of the temple, the wars of the kings and the words of the prophets may all be important foundational stories, but it is only the Exodus which is the actual foundation. The story comprises two parts: (1) the enslavement and persecution in Egypt, and (2) the miraculous deliverance. The latter exclusively establishes the vertical axis of Judaism, inextricably binding the Jewish people to God: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery" (Exodus 20, 2). The former, equally exclusively, provides the basis for the entire horizontal axis of Judaism, that which binds the people to one another as a self-ruling political body, and grounds our obligation toward those we rule: "You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). Thus, the story of the Exodus serves as the cornerstone of Judaism, both as a religion and a peoplehood, establishing its twofold covenant between man and God – and between man and man.
The great tragedy of our day is that the first half of the story seems to have fallen out of the equation. We are quite keen to commemorate the second half, but the first half – and its ensuing social and political obligations – have been forgotten entirely. Today, our Seder is largely a celebration of freedom, of divine redemption, of our election as the people of God. None of us really care to recall the scars of our slavery, as a living reminder of our political and moral duty to establish a regime in which all are treated with the kindness and respect we never enjoyed. The freedom we rejoice in is regarded as an opportunity to worship God, not as an obligation to build and rule a just and charitable society.
Our grand prayer for freedom, recited every year on Rosh Hashanah, describes the consummation of the redemptive process as follows: "Sound the great shofar for our freedom, and raise the banner to gather our exiles and bring us together from the four corners of the earth. And take us to Zion Your city in song, and to Jerusalem Your temple in eternal joy. And there will we perform the sacrifices of our duty." Ultimate freedom is understood in terms of ritual observance and religious ceremony, not of political mission, state-building, morality and social justice. The horizontal axis of the covenant, our obligation as political players to our fellow men, is fundamentally lacking from our religious discourse.
Accordingly, our modern celebration of freedom, the upcoming Day of Independence, is extremely dull in religious content. As opposed to the wonderfully rich secular festivities, highlighting Israel’s national, cultural, economic, military, intellectual and technological accomplishments, religious Zionism approaches the Day of Independence with a feeble collection of Psalms borrowed from other occasions. Faced with a celebration of political freedom and political mission which places society – rather than religion – at its center, religious Zionism is unable to give it adequate meaning, failing to convey the greatness of the most important event in Jewish history since the Exodus. Yom Yerushalayim, to which religious Zionism turned by way of a sublimation, has become in its hands a shallow, one-dimensional event, in which Jerusalem is celebrated merely the sacred site of "the sacrifices of our duty," without any mention of it being the seat of our renewed sovereignty, and, hence, the platform of our moral and political calling as a people.
As we stand between the ancient Holiday of Freedom and the modern Day of national Independence, we must strive to restore the forgotten side of the Jewish covenant. We must remember that freedom obligates us not only toward God, but toward one another as well. Only once we establish a polity of morality and mutual responsibility, once we come to "know the heart of the stranger," will we have fully justified the freedom we have been granted.
Written with Gila Fine

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