By DONNIEL HARTMAN
The dramatic story of the Exodus from Egypt involves many players: the Children of Israel, the Egyptians, Moses, Aaron, and Pharaoh. There is, however, only one hero: God. God is the one who brought us down to Egypt, ostensibly as a staging area for the Jewish people whose receipt of their Promised Land was put on hold until the sins of the Canaanite nations reached a divinely calculated tipping point to justify God’s expulsion of them (Genesis 15:16). God is also the sole player in the redemption; the role of the Children of Israel is to merely be born as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to cry forth out of the suffering of slavery and awaken God to remember God’s covenant (Exodus 2:23-25).
It is a story most aptly summarized by the Biblical verse, "The Lord shall do battle for you, and you, you shall keep still." (Exodus 14:14) The centrality of God in this story is carried forth in the Pesach Haggadah in the opening statement of the retelling of the story, "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God took us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And if the Holy One, Blessed Be God, had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children, and our children’s children, would still be enslaved to the Pharaohs in Egypt."
The story of Egypt depicts a vision of history in which God is the sole or 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. "I am the Lord your God who took you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides me." (Exodus 20:2-3) If we want to change our destiny, it is to the God who shapes history that we must turn our eyes and pray. "Pour out your wrath upon the nations who do not know You, and upon the kingdoms who do not invoke Your name, for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste to his dwelling." (Haggadah)
This vision of history, one which is shaped by an all-powerful, redeeming God, provided profound comfort and hope for powerless people in general and to Jews throughout much of their Diasporic life, in particular. The passivity envisioned was not deemed to be negative, as it was merely descriptive of their current reality, a reality which they believed could only be changed through Divine assistance.
One of the great paradoxes of the Egypt story, however, is that the same story which spawns a religious vision of human passivity in the realm of history generates a religious obligation of extreme activism in the social sphere. "For you were slaves in the Land of Egypt" does not merely serve to direct our eyes to the God in heaven who granted us freedom, but also serves as the foundation for obligating us to treat the poor, the stranger, and the slave with equity, righteousness, and kindness. We are obligated to not merely remember God’s salvation and kindness but the experience of powerlessness and degradation which preceded it, and instead of celebrating the powerlessness, we are commanded to recalibrate our consciousness to the reality of freedom and to take responsibility for the society in which we live. We are obligated to remember God’s activism not merely as the antidote to our helplessness in confronting the forces of history but as a paradigm to be emulated when we confront injustice in ours.
Pesach thus tells a complex story. On the one hand, it depicts God as the heroic figure, and on the other obligates us to become such a figure.
The essence of the Zionist revolution and the new Jewish ideology that it gifted to Jewish life is an attempt to resolve this complexity. Zionism is not merely a movement of Jewish national sovereignty, but a movement of Jewish ideas which declared war on the Pesach idea that when it comes to history we Jews have only one hero, only one place to turn our eyes – God. Zionism is about harnessing the activism which Jews directed within their community to the world outside our community, outside the ghetto walls.
We the champions of the downtrodden within our midst must also take up and fight against the downtroddenness which characterized our status in the world. We were not going to wait for God to pour forth God’s wrath. We were no longer going to wait for a second coming of the Egypt story, and instead we were to strive to become masters of our own fate and destiny. For the Zionist and for the Jews of power and dignity which it spawned worldwide, the Pesach story has become less of a model for the present and more a nostalgic story of our past. We do not merely celebrate our freedom from Egypt but our freedom from the Egypt story and the religious personality that it shapes and envisions.
We must take great care, however, not to liberate ourselves completely from the Egypt story. We are indeed a free, sovereign people who take responsibility for our national destiny. We make a profound error, however, when we envision the goals of Jewish sovereignty merely in terms of shaping and protecting Jewish life within the arena of history, when we limit the purpose of Israel to defending Jews against the Pharaohs and enemies who constantly arise against us.
The story of Egypt obligated us to be sovereign over our society even when we could not be sovereign in history. Now that we are capable of redeeming and protecting ourselves, it would be tragic and indeed ironic if we forgot that we were slaves in Egypt and that the duty of freedom is to create a society of justice, justice for our people and justice for all who live in our midst. It is relatively easy for a people who were saved by an other, to remember that there but for the gift of God go I, and to identify with those of a similar status and embrace a social activist spirit in defense of the needy and downtrodden. It is more difficult for a people who marshaled their own force and genius to build a powerful and vibrant society to avoid the hubris which it can produce, an arrogance which can make one blind to those less successful, to those who could not on their own redeem themselves.
If the story of modern Israel is the antidote to the first part of the story of Egypt, the story of Jewish powerlessness in the face of our foes, then the second part of the story of Egypt, "And remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt," is the antidote to the hubris of power which the story of Israel can generate. We are indeed free from the first story, but the second is more relevant than ever and provides a blueprint for the essential challenges of Israel in the years to come.